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How climate policies are becoming focus for far-right attacks in Germany



Raising his voice above the pounding drums and honking tractors, Lutz Jankus, a city councillor from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), distanced himself from the furious protest unfurling before him.

“They’re rightwing extremists,” he said about Free Saxony, a loose political movement that includes neo-Nazis and skinheads, as his colleagues began to pack up their tent on the side of the square in the centre of Görlitz.

“We don’t want anything to do with them, but we’re here because there’s also a lot of people who vote AfD.”

In Saxony, an eastern German state whose intelligence agency has declared both groups extreme, support for the far right extends deep into the mainstream.

Polls put the AfD on track to win the most votes in its regional elections in September, as well as those of neighbouring Brandenburg and Thüringen.

A far-right demonstration in Görlitz, a far-right stronghold on the Polish border. Photograph: Adam Sich/The Guardian

Free Saxony, a smaller but more radical network, promotes weekly rallies against the government in a Telegram group with 140,000 subscribers.

At the marches held in Görlitz, a stronghold of the far right on the Polish border, and other towns across Germany every Monday night, supporters of both parties vent their fury at immigration, coronavirus restrictions and military aid to Ukraine. But one group bears the brunt of the blame.

“The Greens are our main enemy,” said Jankus, describing the AfD as a party of freedom and the Greens as a party of bans. “We don’t want to tell people how to heat their homes. We don’t want to tell people what kind of engine should be in their car.”

As climate action has moved from abstract ideals to tangible changes, European leaders have started to roll back policies that may push voters away at elections in June.

Although fears of a societal “greenlash” – backlash to green policies – are largely unfounded, survey data suggests, climate policies and the Greens have become a focal point for far-right attacks.

“Our main takeaway is that there’s no widespread green backlash,” said Markus Kollberg, a political scientist at Humboldt University Berlin who co-authored a recent study of attitudes to climate policy among 15,000 voters in France, Germany and Poland.

“What we actually find in the data is a very clear polarisation along party lines.”

The AfD, which became a political powerhouse for its views on immigration, has continued to question scientific facts about global heating long after fossil fuel companies stopped denying them.

On the surface, its supporters have little interest in talking about extreme weather. “Climate, climate, climate,” said one black-clad man with heavy rings at the Monday night rally, shaking his shaved head. “Fuck the climate, man, the world will always change one way or the other.”

While surveys show AfD voters are less likely to care about climate breakdown than the average German, they are more likely to say measures to stop it have gone too far.

When Kollberg and his colleagues showed people a list of 40 policies to cut planet-heating pollution, they found AfD voters barely supported four of them, while Green voters wanted them all.

The most negative reactions were to policies that affected gas boilers, a law aiming ban new gas boilers was described in the media as a “heating hammer”, and combustion engine cars.

On the grand streets of Görlitz, a historic town whose buildings have served as the backdrop for films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inglourious Basterds, residents complain that change is happening too fast, that the Greens are too radical, and that Germany cannot save the world on its own.

Görlitz, seen from the Polish side of the river. Photograph: Adam Sich/The Guardian

“You can’t change a whole system by suddenly doing everything differently in one country,” said one woman in the market square. “You have to start in China,” said another.

The abandoned buildings that pepper Görlitz suggest an economic reason for the resistance to green measures. Factories that used to churn out carriages and capacitors now stand empty on streets speckled with neo-Nazi stickers and antifa graffiti.

“If there’s no prosperity, the AfD does well,” said one young owner of an industrial engineering company, who fears the party’s success will make it harder for businesses to attract workers and investment. “There’s not much industry here, and very little capital.”

Although the average income in the Görlitz region is lower than in most of Germany, it has soared since reunification to hit a level greater than in Spain and close behind that jn France and Italy.

Adjusted for the cost of living, the annual GDP per person in 2021 was €9,200 higher in Görlitz than in Zgorzelec, the Polish side of the city that lies just over the bridge.

An abandoned factory in Görlitz. Photograph: Adam Sich/The Guardian

Politicians who have grown anxious about making people pay for their pollution – spooked by farmers’ protests that erupted across Europe this year – fear the perceived costs of the green transition are driving poor and rural voters to radical parties.

Researchers are sceptical. “We don’t find much evidence for that in our data,” said Kollbert. “It’s ideology that drives the differences, not income.”

For the Greens, who rode a wave of support for climate action to secure a spot in a three-way coalition in 2021, the unpopular policies are a natural consequence of promises to stop extreme weather from growing more violent.

At the last federal election, shortly after deadly floods which were made stronger by climate breakdown killed more than 180 people across the country, every major party except the AfD committed to keeping the planet from heating 1.5C (2.7F) above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

But since then, the Greens have become a punching bag in the media, and victims of far more aggression in real life than other parties.

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Local Green politicians have been attacked across the country; the economy and climate minister, Robert Habeck, was met by a mob when he left a ferry in January; and co-leader Ricarda Lang was stopped from leaving a party meeting in February by farmers who lit fires and blocked roads with tractors.

Attacks on party representatives in Germany in 2023 – graphic

Outside the Görlitz Greens’ office, which lies on the route of the weekly demonstrations, the party speaker Carolin Renner said she and her colleagues had had death threats screamed in their faces, white-pride stickers stuck to their door and a daily barrage of hateful comments posted on their social media channels.

Shortly before Christmas, protesters dumped horse manure in front of the Greens’ office in nearby Zittau.

“It’s scary,” said Renner. “When you work here [in the office], you have nowhere else to go.”

The Greens are not only a target of the far right. Friedrich Merz, the leader of the conservative opposition, described the Greens as the party’s “main enemy” in the government, while Michael Kretschmer, the conservative premier of Saxony who co-governs with the Greens, derided his coalition partners as “these people” whom he doesn’t much like.

Climate activists across the country – mostly young women – have been subject to abuse they say gets worse when mainstream politicians call them “eco-terrorists” and the “climate Taliban”.

At a public event two years ago, the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, appeared to compare a group of radical climate activists to Nazis, a charge he denied but repeatedly refused to explain.

“I don’t think [the national rhetoric] directly influences how people in Görlitz are responding to us,” said Renner, who moved to Dresden last year because of the threats. “But in the long run, it normalises violence and going at your opponents in this manner.”

From an office in the centre of Görlitz, Sebastian Wippel, an AfD lawmaker in the Saxon parliament, said all three parties in the federal government bore responsibility for its policies, not just the Greens.

Sebastian Wippel said AfD voters ‘have little fear of climate change’. Photograph: Adam Sich/The Guardian

But in many ways, he added, the Greens represented “an ideological worldview that completely contradicts ours”.

“Our voters have little fear of climate change,” said Wippel, who nearly became mayor of Görlitz in 2019, adding that AfD supporters cared about energy policies driving up living costs and weakening their wallets.

“You get the impression that the government is, as we say in Germany, shooting sparrows with cannons,” he said.

In its latest review of the scientific research, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that humans were responsible for all of the observed 1.2C rise in temperatures since the Industrial Revolution.

Wippel said the spectrum of views within the AfD ranged from those who did not think the climate was changing, to those who thought it was changing but that humanity’s contribution was unknown, right up to those “who follow, let’s say, this Green narrative”.

People in the last group were few and far between, he added, “but they do exist”.

The AfD’s climate views do not appear to trouble its core supporters but may cause problems for the party as it seeks to broaden its appeal.

The vast majority of Germans accept that humans are changing the climate – though their views on how to stop it getting worse and willingness to do so vary widely – and voters who worry most about migration may question the outcome of allowing temperatures in Africa and Asia to rise to increasingly intolerable levels.

“I don’t see that,” said Wippel. “The issue of migration is not the climate, but rather the different living conditions that already prevail in the countries.”

Where the Greens and the AfD agree is that neither party sees much sense in trying to poach votes from the other, preferring instead to convince people in Germany’s political centre.

And while their climate policies are unlikely to attract voters on the other side of the political spectrum, they are also unlikely to put off their own supporters, Kollberg’s research suggests.

“We think of polarisation as a bad word but our results are actually positive in a way,” said Kollberg. “Progressive parties can enact ambitious climate politics without having to expect massive backlash from their own voters.”

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