Merkel admits her efforts to counter climate change ‘not sufficient’

Outgoing German chancellor urges more action as floods take place

German chancellor Angela Merkel: “I am sufficiently equipped with a scientific mind to see that the objective circumstances require that we cannot continue at this pace, but must speed up.”  Photograph:  Hannibal Hanschke

German chancellor Angela Merkel: “I am sufficiently equipped with a scientific mind to see that the objective circumstances require that we cannot continue at this pace, but must speed up.” Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke

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Angela Merkel may have just weeks left in office but any farewell talk in Berlin is verboten amid the fallout of last week’s catastrophic floods and exponential growth in Covid-19 infections.

Appearing before the German press on Thursday, the chancellor acknowledged that her efforts to counter climate change were “not sufficient” and gave a cautious welcome to an agreement with the Biden administration to avoid US sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

“It’s a good step that required a readiness to compromise from both sides,” she said.

But she acknowledged that work remained to be done, with Senate pushback in Washington and outstanding agreements with Moscow and Ukraine on safeguards and longer duration gas transit agreements.

Merkel insisted the deal, like the pipeline, was “not at all” a signal that Germany valued its ties to Russia above those with Ukraine and Poland.

And should Russia break its word and instrumentalise gas deliveries to Ukraine, she pointed out the EU was “not without any means” to respond – raising the prospect of further sanctions against Moscow.

A week after devastating floods that have claimed at least 209 lives across Europe – including 170 in Germany, with 150 people still missing – Merkel agreed that Germany and other countries needed to “speed up” the fight against climate change.

Temperature targets

“It’s not as if we’ve done nothing but it’s true that not enough has been done to reach the aim of staying well under [a global average temperature rise of] two degrees and as close to 1.5 as possible,” said Merkel. “That is not just true of Germany, but of many countries across the world, which is why we need to increase the tempo.”

One of Merkel’s earliest political successes was as environment minister at the first UN climate conference in Bonn in 1995, securing a deal on greenhouse gas emissions reductions that led to the Kyoto Agreement .

Under close questioning on Thursday, Merkel conceded that, though she had invested “a great deal of energy” in the Kyoto and Paris agreements, she was disappointed to have fallen short of securing the political majorities needed – at home, in Europe and globally – to combat climate change.

“I am sufficiently equipped with a scientific mind to see that the objective circumstances require that we cannot continue at this pace, but must speed up,” she added.

The climate issue is just one of the half a dozen crises that have shaped her four terms of office, with the banking, euro and refugee crises crowned now with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Next Covid wave

After weeks of falling infection numbers, and more than 60 per cent of Germans vaccinated at least once, she said figures were showing a “worrying dynamic” and an emerging fourth wave.

Official figures showed 1,890 new infections on Thursday over the previous 24 hours. The average national incidence rate was 12.2 new cases per 100,000 people – with the rate in Berlin nearly twice that – up from a low of 4.9 earlier this month.

“With a rising incidence rate, it could be that we need to introduce additional measures,” said Merkel.

In the few reflective moments she allowed herself on Thursday, the chancellor agreed that her four terms had been crisis-filled and the political mood far more robust.

“A life without crises is easier, but when they happen we have to overcome them, that is our job as politicians,” she said. “Wherever political debate is so harsh that it ends in personal put-downs, that ends the chance to build bridges.”

In a changed world of social media, hate speech and fake news, the German leader warned that western democracies were facing attack on previously undisputed social norms and their ability to secure political compromise.

Though she has stayed clear of social media, Merkel warned against the trend to “mix feelings and emotions with facts” because this “called into question the basis of the Enlightenment”.

“Facts are facts, should be respected as such. They can’t be weighed up against feelings,” she said.

And what of her plans when she ends her 31-year political career after September’s federal election. Will she miss power?

“One usually only misses something when one no longer has it,” said Merkel, who turned 67 last Saturday. “I’ll find something to do with my time.”