“The German language knows hardly any words for this devastation”. That’s how chancellor Angela Merkel summed up the deadly floods that wreaked havoc in parts of Germany and neighbouring countries last week.
She was visiting affected towns in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday, where she held the hand of a grieving Malu Dreyer, the state premier and senior figure from the Social Democratic Party (SDP), making sure her voice was heard.
The image of both women is especially poignant in that it captures a moment of compassion and empathy in the face of disaster. It also is a lesson of leadership that contrasts with the behaviour shown by other senior government officials, chief among whom was Armin Laschet, the candidate to succeed Merkel from her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the September federal election.
As the soon-to-be elder stateswoman was meeting with survivors and volunteers, Laschet had to apologise after television footage showed him laughing in the background while the German president, the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was giving a statement in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state of which Laschet is the premier.
But while reaction to catastrophic events may vary from leader to leader, there’s something most frontrunners for the chancellorship appear to agree on, and that’s the role global warming has played in the disaster that has left at least 165 people dead.
In this vein, an election with climate change at its heart could benefit the Greens, who have so far stayed away from making political hay out of the crisis but likewise refrained to visit flood-ravaged areas, arguing that “rubbernecking politicians just get in the way in such situations”.
This shows as much prudence as it shows political savviness from the Greens and their candidate, Annalena Baerbock, who knows the party could end up holding all the winning cards if it managed to use its competence in environmental and climate issues to mobilise voters.
On the other hand, although the CDU’s Laschet has recognised that Germany needs to pick up the pace on its path towards carbon neutrality, the centre-right politician has strongly opposed parts of the Greens’ agenda and the EU’s new common carbon emissions policy, saying that they could compromise the country’s status as an industrial powerhouse.
It’s too soon to make any electoral predictions, but there’s no denying the devastating consequences of the floods are already rearranging Germany’s political picture as the focus on climate change sharpens.