LUETZERATH, Germany (AP) — As Germany reels from its deadliest inland floods in living memory, one word has been on the lips of leading politicians: “klimawandel,” the German word for climate change.
Last week’s disaster has propelled the issue to the fore of an election campaign that will determine who succeeds Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor this fall after her 16 years in office.
The flooding has also put the front-runner in the race, Merkel’s party’s new leader, Armin Laschet, on the defensive amid accusations that he stalled efforts to expand the use of renewable energy, phase out coal power and introduce highway speed limits during his four years as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state.
An industrial powerhouse, the state is home to almost a quarter of Germany’s population and was among the regions hit hardest by the floods, which have claimed more than 200 lives and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.
“I’ve known for a long time that climate change is a task that we’ll have to deal with,” Laschet said during a testy exchange with journalists on the morning after the worst flooding, insisting that he wanted “more speed” when it came to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Such statements offer a glimmer of hope to climate activists like Salome Dorfer, who is campaigning to save the tiny village of Luetzerath from being bulldozed to make way for a coal mine.
The village, located in Laschet’s state and first mentioned in records dating back 853 years, stands a few hundred yards from a vast pit where German utility giant RWE is extracting lignite coal to burn in nearby power plants.
The practice is due to end by 2038, but environmentalists say it needs to stop at least 10 years earlier if Germany is to play its part in meeting the Paris climate accord goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Under every square meter below us is an average of 46 tons of coal,” Dorfer said. “Every square meter we can defend will save a lot of emissions.”
While Dorfer and fellow activists prepare to hole up in tree houses to stop the evictions of villagers, she hopes growing public awareness about the impact of climate change in the wake of Germany’s devastating floods will make that fight unnecessary.