German populists are adopting climate change denialism as a new campaign strategy. The far-right Alternative for Germany party has begun directing its unscientific claims at global warming activists like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and says it wants to be the party that “saves diesel.”
It was hot on a recent Tuesday evening in Velten, a small town in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. The only way to stay cool was to keep the doors and windows open. The speakers were sweating. So was the audience.
A good 200 people had shown up to listen to speeches by Jörg Meuthen, the national spokesman for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and other party leaders. Surely no one would deny that the venue was so hot because of all the people inside. But asked whether humanity was also responsible for heating up the planet, the attendees’ answers would probably be less affirmative.
Meuthen recalled an “awakening experience” in the European Parliament in mid-April, explaining that a guest had come to visit: “Hold on to your hat, this was a very, very high-ranking state visit, the holy Greta from Sweden.” The audience laughed. “But seriously,” Meuthen said, getting worked up, the parliament’s president had greeted “this 16-year-old student.” And what’s more, he told the audience, Greta had received “thundering applause.”
“Unbelievable,” grumbled one man in the front row. Meuthen continued: “She got standing ovations from the entire parliament. For what, one has to wonder, for what?” He followed up with a joke: “The next day, she met the Pope, and gave him a small audience.” More laughter.
Has the icon of the student-led “Fridays for Future” protests become a target of far-right populist scorn? Has a 16-year-old student been painted as the political opponent of the AfD? Yes, indeed.
Low Hanging Fruit
The far-right German party has adopted a new issue to score points with voters: environmental policy. The party addresses it in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, and out on the campaign trail. It fosters connections to climate change deniers in the orbit of U.S. President Donald Trump. But more than anything, it is trying to drum up support ahead of upcoming elections in May for the European Parliament as well as elections in three East German states, which are scheduled for late summer.
After the euro and the refugee crisis, it is the third major theme the party is using to bring people on its side. The AfD didn’t just decide to shift its message out of the blue: It recognized some time ago that scolding migrants and warning of Muslim conspiracies don’t have the same pull they did two or three years ago. This is mostly because there are far fewer refugees entering the country now than a few years ago. The AfD needs to find a new rallying cry.
Environmental policy has become a ubiquitous, hot-button issue. There are the “Fridays for Future” protests instigated by Greta Thunberg, the debate over diesel vehicles and proposed driving bans on those cars in some cities due to dangerous emissions, the never-ending squabbling over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and, most recently, the push by German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze to implement a carbon tax. Not to mention the images of melting glaciers and plastic floating in the ocean, or the memories of the drought-stricken summer last year.
“We would be foolish to not take up the subject,” said Meuthen. It is one of the most important issues, especially for his party, Meuthen added. “As a politician, you have to tackle the subjects people care about.”
As far as pollsters can tell, Meuthen isn’t wrong. According to one survey conducted by the pollster Forschungsgruppe Wahlen in mid-April, “environment/clean energy revolution” was described as the second-most important “problem in Germany,” right after “foreigners/integration/refugees.” According to another pollster, Infratest dimap, “environment- and climate-protection” played either a very important or an important role for 89 percent of eligible voters during the 2017 general election.
The AfD is taking up a position unoccupied by any other German political party — far from any conclusions supported by science.
At the launch of the European election campaign in the southern German city of Offenburg three weeks ago, the AfD’s party and parliamentary group head Alexander Gauland grandiosely claimed that it was “completely unclear” what role humans were playing in climate change. Gauland spoke of “degenerate fearmongering” by the Green Party. And then he conjured up his own horror scenario: Soon there would be a “United States of Europe, a de-industrialized settlement covered in wind turbines” in which not only all national identities would be abolished, but all cars would be electric, “and only available via car-sharing.”
The AfD’s retrograde views are especially well-received in rural areas, where many depend on their cars. The party portrays itself as the party that wants to “save diesel.” That also happens to be the slogan on the election poster that the AfD’s district associations have ordered the most. According to the party’s European election platform, “millions of diesel drivers were practically dispossessed” because the government, the other parties and the EU decided that combustion engines were bad and anachronistic. In Velten, Meuthen even claimed that the “diesel limits” from Brussels were “destroying our car industry” and that the entire sector would disappear. He received loud applause from people who saw him as the fighter who would save the combustion engine.
The AfD’s stance on the climate makes it an outlier not just in Germany, but in Europe as well. “When it comes to climate change, the AfD is among the hardliners of the European right-wing populists,” said Stella Schaller, a climate expert at Berlin’s adelphi think tank. With a colleague, Schaller analyzed 21 European right-wing populist parties’ platforms, statements and voting behavior in the European Parliament. “No other party, with the exception of Britain’s UKIP, denies human-induced climate change as vehemently as the AfD.”
The AfD works especially closely with the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE). Contrary to its name, EIKE is not a scientific institute, but merely an association. There are no legal restrictions on the term “institute.”
On its website, the group argues that climate policy is a “pretense” for leaders to “control the economy and the population” and to “burden people with taxes.” Almost every day, the group posts something new on its blog or Twitter feed. Sometimes it presents new figures, but mostly it just shares a lot of photo montages and flashy headlines. It tries to stir up hatred against the “Friday for Future” demonstrations and against Greta Thunberg, who some EIKE members refer to as “Greta Tuna” or that “climate protection hussy.” As far as institutes go, this one only seems to churn out unsophisticated propaganda.
An attempt to visit EIKE in Jena, where the organization is registered, was not entirely successful. First, a press spokesman excused himself multiple times. Later, he said he wasn’t authorized to answer the questions being asked. The group’s president suggested a visit in the coming week, but then stopped answering his phone. His deputy, Michael Limburg, eventually took pity and said on the phone: “EIKE is unaffiliated with any political party.”
Limburg himself ran as an AfD candidate in the national election in Gerany and co-wrote a paper for the party’s federal committee on energy policy, which now serves as the basis for the party’s climate policy. EIKE spokesperson Horst-Joachim Lüdecke, a physicist, was invited by the AfD as an expert on multiple occasions.
The association is well-connected, including among prominent climate change deniers in the United States. For instance, German public broadcaster ARD’s political program Monitor revealed last summer that EIKE chief Holger Thuss was also in charge of the European subsidiary of CFACT, a lobby organization. The American oil giant ExxonMobil has donated large sums of money to CFACT.
Then there’s the Heartland Institute, which provides EIKE with support at conferences. It receives donations from the foundation of a billionaire who is one of the biggest donors to U.S. President Donald Trump. The money often flows to groups that oppose climate protection. When asked, Limburg confirmed that EIKE was “loosely connected” to Heartland and CFACT. There are also AfD politicians who attempt, without the support of the institute, to bring the public on their side.
An Exercise in Political Propaganda
During a “Fridays for Future” protest in Berlin’s Mitte district in mid-March, the AfD Bundestag parliamentarian Karsten Hilse handed out “quizzes” to some young people at the front of the crowd — and allowed himself be filmed doing so. Hilse, who is also his party’s representative on the Bundestag Committee on the Environment, posted the video to Facebook. He wrote that the “quiz” was meant to check the youths’ “science knowledge.”
Climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf took a closer look at the “quiz,” which consisted of eight questions. On his blog, he wrote that it could serve as the “basis for a lesson about political propaganda.” The “quiz” was carefully written, asking, for instance, by how many molecules per ten thousand the level of CO2 in the atmosphere had increased since the Little Ice Age, starting with the Industrial Revolution. As was the case for almost all the quiz’s answers, the lowest option (“1”) was correct. Rahmstorf’s verdict: The quiz wasn’t meant to determine people’s knowledge, but rather to mislead them and thus underline political positions. Several of the answers, he wrote, were completely false.
In Stuttgart, meanwhile, the AfD has tried to use regular “diesel demonstrations” in the city to its advantage. Since mid-January, a few hundred people have been protesting there in yellow vests in favor of diesel and against the decision by the state’s Green-led Transport Ministry to ban certain types of diesel cars in the city. While the organizer of the protests, Ioannis Sakkaros, emphasized that the event is not affiliated with any party, the AfD logo was visible on the bottom right corner of many protest signs, often poorly disguised. And AfD politicians like Dirk Spaniel have been among the protesters from the beginning.
Spaniel is the transport policy spokesperson for the AfD’s parliamentary group in the federal parliament, and says it is no coincidence that the party has now taken on the issue. “That is also my doing,” he says. He has long believed there is a plan to remake society under the banner of combating climate change. Spaniel suspects that the government has a grand plan: “Privately owned cars are to be eliminated.” He says the AfD wants to prevent this from happening. After all, he believes the car industry is a key sector for the country. And in rural areas, a discussion about driving bans triggers strong emotional reactions.
When Spaniel’s theories are challenged, he also reacts emotionally.
On a recent Tuesday, while the AfD lawmaker was technically on Easter holiday, he agreed to a meeting in his office in the Bundestag. Dressed in blue jeans and a polo shirt, he was at first happy to talk about the state of the AfD and his path to the party. But when the subject turned to diesel and climate-change prediction models, his tone changed. He began interrupting with a raised index finger. “The fact that 90 percent of scientists believe the current climate models are correct is not scientific proof that they are right,” he said. And: “Excuse me, but I simply get riled up when someone claims something different.”
Reframing the Debate
The AfD also uses the Bundestag to publicize its favorite new subject. Spaniel has hired six aides for the transportation portfolio, and correspondingly, the party has made many minor inquiries and proposed numerous laws. According to Cem Özdemir, the head of the transport committee and the former head of the Greens, the AfD is occupying “tilled soil.”
That ground was tilled, says Özdemir, by the FDP and parts of the CDU, who have moved against Environmental Action Germany (DUH), a group that fights for clean air in cities. Some parts of the FDP and the CDU want to limit the DUH’s right to file lawsuits. They accuse its leader of being corrupt and a puppet of the Japanese auto industry, with the goal of harming German businesses. It is, in other words, a conspiracy theory — almost perfectly suited for the AfD.
Of course, Özdemir says, the populist party is happy to take this conspiracy theory and run with it. “(The AfD) likes to vote in favor of motions the FDP is making against the DUH or against driving bans.” In doing this, he argues, it wants to make itself seem like part of the mainstream, while also harming its greatest opponents.
DUH Chairman Jürgen Resch is one such opponent. He has been the target of public defamation by the AfD. Meuthen, the party spokesman, calls Resch a “frequent flyer” and says his group “bullies” everyone in the hopes of instituting speed limits on roads.
The far-right party, meanwhile, has relied on highly dubious experts, like physicist Nir Shaviv, who appeared before the environment committee. In front of the lawmakers, he claimed there was no proof of human-caused climate change, dismissing what thousands of researchers in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have shown. Shaviv’s theory is that some special solar force is having a stronger influence on the Earth’s temperature than had previously been assumed.
These claims were carried live on parliamentary television, and excerpts soon found their way onto YouTube, cleverly presented with a provocative headline: “Scientist reveals climate swindle in Bundestag!” It was perfectly choreographed — and it wasn’t even over yet.
In the following session on climate change, another AfD expert got worked up about the fact that Shaviv’s theories in the previous meeting had been described by an expert from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research as “nonsense.” The head of the committee, Green politician Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, contradicted him, explaining that the Potsdam expert had backed up his claim well. And so, instead of discussing “the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of climate protection measures, one debated the ‘whether’,” Kotting-Uhl said.
It was just the kind of the debate the AfD likes.