Something new under the sun? The Alternative for Germany’s recent discussion of climate change and homeland protection

Since the May 2019 European Parliament election’s ‘Green wave’ in Germany, where the Green party increased its share of the vote by 9.8 to 20.5 per cent and came second after the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, climate-change policy has played a particularly prominent role in public debate. As one of the most outright climate-change sceptic radical-right parties in Europe, the significance of climate change did catch the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) on the wrong foot. Indeed, following the party’s uninspiring election result, calls to rethink its stance were voiced by, for example, the youth wing of the AfD in Berlin.

Given the long tradition of radical-right ecology, built around protection of local particularity (‘Environmental/Nature Protection is Homeland Protection’), and the widely shared acceptance of the thesis of anthropogenic climate change in Germany, conditions for such a rethink are in fact in place. Indeed, while the party’s opposition to mainstream public and political responses to climate change (for example, complaints about ‘climate hysteria’ and opposition to ‘green taxes’) might make sense from a party-strategic point of view, the AfD’s fundamental scepticism towards climate change’s anthropogenic (that is, caused by humans) character does less. Indeed, the publication of a so-called Dresdener Erklӓrung (Dresdener Declaration) by the AfD, a declaration by environmental spokespersons (Federal Parliament and of the State Parliaments) emerging from a meeting on 13 and 14 of July 2019 in Dresden, could have introduced a shift, or ‘something new under the sun’. For the rest of this article, let me break apart and assess this document for you.

The declaration has eight pages in total (including a cover page and a Table of Contents page) and, on its first substantive page, praises Alexander von Humboldt’s ecological awareness. Whilst a reference to the German polymath, during the year of his 250th birthday, is hardly special, the party subsequently claims that the human-nature relationship should not result in ‘over-extension’ and ‘detriment’ for humans and the environment. And yet, already the second paragraph relishes against a so-called ‘regulatory frenzy’ by the European Union – followed by an attack on the German government’s, again, ‘regulatory frenzy’ which supposedly harms the interests of both ‘industry and the population’. Reconciliation between environmental protection and economic growth is demanded again in Section 1 of the document (‘Economy and Ecology’). However, the first section on an actual issue, Section 2 on climate change, contains claims known from the AfD’s 2016 party manifesto, first-and-foremost scepticism towards anthropogenic climate change. Accordingly, the declaration states that an ‘influence’ of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has not been proven and, consequently, argues against the pricing of CO2, in favour of phasing out coal and for the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Instead of proposing ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the AfD argues in favour of adaptation to ‘natural climate change’. This is followed by claims that mainstream climate-change policies are indications of an upcoming ‘eco-dictatorship’ (Section 3). While parts of the radical right flirted with authoritarian measures to avoid an environmental catastrophe during the 1970s, the AfD uses the term to attack supposedly illiberal policies by the mainstream and political left.

The declaration also includes hardly controversial, ‘green’ claims, for example a defence of the precautionary principle in relation to clean groundwater. Similarly, agricultural activities are supposed to be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner and the seas are to be protected. Furthermore, the AfD argues for preventing plastic waste, pointing in particular to waste management of composite materials in wind turbines. Concerning alternative energy sources, the party opposes further wind and solar energy coming from installations stationed in forests and on arable land. This claim regarding the protection of flora and fauna links neatly to another topic addressed by the declaration: invasive species and the fight against those which affect the ecosystem (by replacing domestic species) or harm our health. Concerning biodiversity and wildlife, the current discussion about the return of lupine populations to Germany (a discussion similarly present in, for example, Denmark) is addressed in Section 6. For example, the AfD takes a stance in favour of regulation and against an unconditional protection of the species. In contrast to mainstream ‘green’ thought in Germany, nuclear energy is not rejected (Section 7). Instead, more research into the next generation of nuclear reactors is demanded.

The second-last section, Section 9, concerns a classic of radical-right ecological thinking: population growth. What Ian Angus and Simone Butler have termed ‘populationism’, that is, the belief that too many humans are the cause of ‘social and ecological ills’ – something characterizing mainstream discussions since the 1960s and which, as such, also influenced debates in the radical right – is clearly present in the Dresdener Erklӓrung. Environmental protection, it is said, faces increasing challenges due to rapid population growth ‘especially in emerging and developing countries’. The party points to deforestation of the rain forests and overfishing as examples, though what is not discussed is the extent to which the Global North must restrict itself. Instead, the AfD points to ‘modern technology’ as a solution – technology which Germany should export around the globe.

Under the finale section heading – ‘10. Homeland protection/nature protection/landscape protection’ – the party connects to another classic of radical-right ecology, the aforementioned slogan ‘Environmental Protection is Homeland Protection’/ ‘Nature Protection is Homeland Protection’. While the need to protect Germany’s cultural landscape is stressed, the inclusion of ‘landscape’ into this well-known slogan does not change the fact that ideas proposed in this declaration do not open new avenues for the party. Indeed, and aligned with this focus on the nation’s landscape, the party has even more recently made available a webpage on the environment within a campaign (‘Stop Greens, Protect the Environment) in favour of a ‘climate of reason’. It is in this context, that a prominent AfD member spoke of ‘PR-driven activism and the abuse of incited, young people as demonstration masses’ on 19 September 2019, the day before the global climate strike. In contrast, the AfD claims to stand up for and protect ‘our homeland, its people and their nature’, not only ‘the climate industry’. Hence, while local particularity is still held dear, climate change, which might be perceived in a more global, abstract frame (based on, for example, key tenants of radical-right ideology, the rejection of a supposedly irrational, hysteric mainstream/left and ‘globalist’ elites), is still viewed in a sceptical manner. Indeed, while the Dresdener Erklӓrung contains a few (uncontroversial) environmentalist points and raises classic themes of radical-right ecological thinking, the AfD’s same, old climate-change scepticism is present too – attesting to the dictum that there nothing new under the (AfD’s environmental) sun.

Dr Bernhard Forchtner is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in the School of Media, Communication and Sociology, University of Leicester. See his profile here.

© Bernhard Forchtner. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).