mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Green Power

Last fall’s elections in Germany knocked the Green Party out of the
government but not, it seems, out of power. From 1998 to 2005, the
Greens had helped govern Germany as the junior partner in a red-green
coalition led by the Social Democratic Party. Following inconclusive
elections this past September, the red-green government was replaced
by a so-called grand coalition between the SPD and an alliance of two
conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the
Christian Social Union, headed by Angela Merkel. The Greens were left
out. Yet their influence on public policy persists, as illustrated by
one of the first actions Merkel took as Chancellor.

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Embracing a green jobs program the Greens had long championed, Merkel
decreed that from now on 5 percent of all pre-1978 German housing
would be made energy efficient every year. Toward that end, the
government will spend 1.5 billion euros a year subsidizing the
installation of more efficient insulation, heating and electricity
systems in houses and apartment buildings across the nation. That is a
major outlay of money, especially considering widespread calls to trim
Germany’s budget deficit, but the program is seen as a win-win-win.
The 1.5 billion euros will be recouped through lower energy bills.
Lower energy use will mean less air pollution and lower greenhouse gas
emissions. And, most important of all for a nation fighting
double-digit rates of unemployment, the efficiency upgrades will
create thousands of jobs that cannot be outsourced overseas. Because
efficiency renovations are highly labor-intensive and by their nature
localized, the program will provide jobs for countless German
carpenters, electricians and other construction workers. Since much of
Germany’s pre-1978 housing is located in the former East Germany, most
of the new jobs will be created there, where unemployment and the
social tensions it fosters are greatest.

“The new government is clearly following our lead,” says Reinhard
Bütikofer, Green Party chair. “This will not only strengthen climate
policy but create many new jobs. We in fact started that program while
in the [red-green] government, and we had to defend it a couple of
times against the SPD finance minister.”

Twenty-five years after their founding, the German Greens remain
without question the most influential environmentally based party
ever. They have exercised decisive effect not only on government
policy but on the underlying terrain of social values and beliefs that
shape policy, and they have done so both at home and abroad. During
the 2005 election campaign, recalls Patrik Schwarz of the German
weekly Die Zeit, who has written extensively about the party, “the
Greens would say, half-jokingly, that if they had not helped to usher
in changes in German politics and society over the past twenty years,
you never would have seen a woman [Merkel] heading the CDU ticket or
an openly gay man [Guido Westerwelle] leading the [business-based]
Free Democratic Party.” One month after Merkel’s announcement, the
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also copied the
Greens when its president, Jean Lemierre, announced that Eastern
European countries would have to improve their energy efficiency in
order to continue receiving loans.

During their years governing the world’s third-biggest economy, the
Greens also showed they could be trusted with the reins of power
without losing their edge. They demanded and won an internationally
unprecedented phaseout of nuclear power—nineteen reactors, which
supply 30 percent of Germany’s electricity, are scheduled to close by
2020—and made up the shortfall by sponsoring a renewable energy
sources law that has already doubled German production of solar, wind
and other renewable energies and is projected to raise their share of
German energy consumption to 65 percent by 2050. Under the leadership
of the party’s most popular figure, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer,
the Greens transformed Germany’s foreign policy and global image,
leaving behind their own historical pacifism and the nation’s
historically reflexive pro-Americanism. Fischer enraged both the
Greens’ left wing, by supporting international peacekeeping missions
in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the Bush Administration, by
leading European resistance to the Iraq War.

But if the Greens are so clever, why were they voted out last
September? Bütikofer insists the defeat wasn’t the Greens’ fault, and
the data support him. Since joining the government in 1998, the Greens
have increased their share of the vote in national elections from 6.7
percent to 8.1 percent. It was the decline of former Chancellor
Gerhard Schröder’s SPD, whose support fell from 40.9 to 34.2 percent
over the past seven years thanks to a failure to conquer Germany’s
unemployment crisis, that doomed the red-green government. In the
lead-up to the election, polls showed the SPD trailing the CDU by as
much as twenty points. Thus, says Schwarz, “The Greens didn’t have the
functional argument going for them this election. They couldn’t
campaign saying, ‘Vote Green and you’ll get a red-green government.'”

Looking forward, the Greens face the challenge of replacing Fischer
(who announced his retirement from the party leadership) and, above
all, sharpening their appeal on economic issues. “Ask Germans which
party is the most competent on consumer or energy or especially
environmental issues, and it’s the Greens,” says party chair
Bütikofer. “But on the economy we’re not respected a lot, so that’s
where we have to do the most work.”

The Greens are, after all, implicated in the economic shortcomings of
the red-green government, whose reform of Germany’s social welfare
state went too far for many on the left but not far enough for
business and others on the right. (The new Left Party capitalized on
workers’ dissatisfactions with the red-green reforms to win 8.7
percent of the 2005 vote, nosing ahead of the Greens.) Arguing that
wealth cannot be distributed unless it is first created, the Greens
now present themselves as the party of market-friendly modernizations.
“We must find answers to globalization, to independence from oil, to
integration of foreigners” into German society, says Renate Künast,
the new co-leader of the party’s parliamentary faction. “We don’t want
to leave this up to the market alone, because the market follows and
rewards only the interests of shareholders. The government must set
rules…so that a worker is not just a pawn in the game of economic
interests. That is modern left politics.”

The green jobs program that Chancellor Merkel borrowed from the Greens
is a key example of the larger argument the Greens will continue to
push, says Bütikofer—that “what has traditionally been called
‘industrial policy’ should instead be renamed and pursued as
‘environmental policy.'” The Greens’ Renewable Energy Sources law
likewise “sent the message that ecological innovation and jobs go
together,” Bütikofer adds. The renewable energy industry now employs
130,000 workers in Germany. Because parts of the law on renewables
have since been copied by forty-one other nations, including China,
German exports of renewable energy technology should grow, yielding
even more jobs in the future.

At age twenty-five the Greens have left behind their militant past to
become a center-left party; Green leaders speak as critically of the
alleged “demagoguery” of the Left Party as they do of the “market
radicalism” of the right-wing Free Democratic Party. Much of what the
party has accomplished at home is not transferable to countries with
nonparliamentary electoral systems; in the winner-take-all United
States, getting 8 percent of the vote is a ticket to nowhere. But
Germany is rich and powerful enough that its actions have a global
effect. In the past seven years the Greens seeded a worldwide
renewable energy revolution while helping to weaken the Bush
Administration’s drive to war in Iraq. Those are impressive
achievements, and if the party can further find its voice on economic
matters, they could be just the beginning.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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