Does Germany face a “winter of shivering,” as the country’s biggest tabloid is saying? Will people be forced to freeze because they can no longer pay their gas bills? Will the massive price increases result in a major economic crisis?
Wherever you read, listen to, or watch the news right now, there is a sense of crisis. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has mercilessly exposed what Germany has done wrong, failed to do, or neglected in recent decades, just as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed failures in healthcare, education and digitalization.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong simply to give up, or to lapse into “everything is awful” populism. If we recognize the signs of the times, and take appropriate action in response, this crisis can also provide us with an opportunity.
Natural gas: A precious commodity
It’s obvious to all of us by now that natural gas is a finite and precious commodity that should be used sparingly. The same goes for all fossil fuels. This scarcity has already made an impression on our wallets (Think: the soaring price of gasoline) and will continue to do so.
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we also know that we have frittered away our previous attempts at the long overdue switch to renewable energy: The watchword here is climate change. The prior German government, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, liked to talk big about the country’s energy transition, but little has actually happened. Far too little.
Because why would you need a wind turbine right outside your window with gas reliably flowing in from Russia? And so, little by little, over the past few decades, Germany continually increased its dependence on Russian gas. Yet it has long been known that Russia, on numerous occasions, has used gas as a weapon in disputes with its neighbors by turning off the tap in the winter months.
The goal: Rapid carbon neutrality
The opportunity the current crisis offers is to expand renewable energy sources as fast as possible and become carbon-neutral before the government’s declared target of 2045. Because wind, sun, and water are still available even when dictators go to war.
This is a project that requires a strenuous effort by the whole of society. But it has never been easy to save the world.
In the past few days, though, we have learned just how imperative it is, because on July 28 we had already used up the Earth’s natural resources for the entire year. And because if we want to stay below the climate target of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, we have less than seven years in which we can keep burning CO2 at the current rate.
None of this, though, will be of any help over the next few months. One telling sign of how great the pressure is to act is the fact that Green party politician and Economy and Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck, of all people, is backing the reactivation of more coal-fired power plants for a transitional period.
Help the poor and save energy — for the sake of democracy
The next winter will certainly be more uncomfortable than previous ones. But panicking is not the way to approach it. The right approach is for us to tackle this common task as a community.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s adopted slogan, “You’ll never walk alone,” must be followed by appropriate action. This includes heating subsidies for people on low incomes and regulations to prevent the waste of energy, such as heating private swimming pools. No one should actually have to freeze.
But it also means implementing all sensible proposals for saving energy, such as introducing a speed limit, or having more people work from home. We need to be more conscious of our energy use in general. The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has already made a start: His official Berlin residence, Bellevue Palace, will no longer be illuminated at night.
Saving, and helping, getting through this winter together: This is the task society is facing — one that must be orchestrated by politicians, but one we must tackle together. Right-wing populists are already rallying to exploit the emergency for their dishonorable goals. Their calls for protests are aimed at those who feel disaffected and left behind. It would be disastrous if their message were to fall on fertile ground. Our democracy is more important than keeping our homes a cozy degree or two warmer.