MUNICH — If a considerable proportion of the population expresses dissatisfaction in an election with the government's work, as a top politician, you can react in different ways. You can announce there will be consequences. You can question yourself and explore how you lost all those voters. Or you can call yourself a victim of "opinion manufacturing" and hope that nobody notices that you didn't react to the substantive criticism of said part of the population.

The latter is what Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Angela Merkel's favored successor as chancellor — deemed appropriate in response to the massive loss of young voters in the European elections.

The alienation between young people and their leaders is serious.

Kramp-Karrenbauer's helpless suggestion to ban influencers on the net not only overlooks the right to freedom of expression, but also runs contrary to the reality of life of those who grew up with the Internet. The influencers like Rezo (a YouTuber and music producer) who, before the election, reached millions of people with their anti-CDU appeal, have one concern above all: Climate policies are too slow and weak. They want Germany to become carbon-neutral by 2035, not by 2050, as Berlin is aiming for. They speak of the irreversibility of climate and environmental pollution, which in their eyes is the government's responsibility.

From the reactions of the popular parties, it becomes clear that they have no sense of how existentially the young generation is affected by climate change — which should actually be called global warming. The alienation between young people and their leaders is serious. Many 18 to 29 year olds feel abandoned with their concerns and fears. And this happens with a national government they themselves voted for: In the 2017 general election, the CDU led with 25% of voters in this age group. The Greens, in contrast, scored just 12% of the youth vote in that election.

Two years later everything has shifted, and the game changer — in the European elections and perhaps in the contests that will follow — was climate change. The Greens gained 1.25 million SPD (Socialist Democrats) voters, 1.11 million CDU voters, and won 33% of the youth vote overall.

"Greens" demonstrating in Germany — Photo: Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung

This result cannot be traced back to an election video on YouTube. The Greens not only scored well with very young voters; they also drew more votes than the CDU among all people under 45. Only the oldest generation — the grandparents of today's YouTubers — are sticking with the CDU and its sister party, the CSU (Bavria's Christian Social Union). But for how much longer? Climate change tops the list of concerns for a growing proportion of that population as well.

The German election results reveal a conflict that is only superficially divided along generational lines and could soon be decisive for the entire EU. It is becoming increasingly clear that time is running out when it comes to making a difference. That's what the international, student-led Fridays for Future movement is all about. But we need more than just activism. The lesson to be taken from this election is clear: It is high time for climate policy to occupy the space that scientists have been advocating for years.

The Greens are now benefiting from the zeitgeist they helped shape. They cut a good number out of the opposition. And it wasn't just a gimmick: The Greens are the only ones dealing these topics in a somewhat plausible manner, although it remains to be seen whether they will satisfy their new electorate once they're in position to set the course.

It requires nothing less than a new social contract.

Some of what the Friday demonstrators are demanding is radical, and that's a good thing. Social commitment does not have to worry about practical constraints. Of course, Rezo and Co. are idealists. And some of the climate-awakened adolescents will realize that necessary constraints will make everyday life less comfortable — in transport, air travel, consumer behavior. Many do not fully understand the consequences of their demands. And yet, who really can claim that? Perhaps some of them have just realized that there is no alternative to climate protection.

Climate policy is complicated. It is about shaping the greatest challenge of humankind so that it is socially acceptable and fair to shoulder. It requires nothing less than a new social contract, and the balancing power of a party that brings everyone on board and acts as a mediator with a view to the future.

There is an opportunity here for the CDU or the SPD. And yet, it does not look as if the ailing coalition will seize this opportunity: Sigmar Gabriel of SPD and Armin Lashet of CDU recommended that their parties not compete with the Greens and instead focus on other issues. Such statements corroborate the lack of insight into the urgency of what's at stake: the habitability of Earth for humans.

Climate protection is not a special-interest issue that can be left to a single party. Those that treat it as such haven't grasped that this problem won't just disappear: Climate change will determine politics in Germany and in Europe for generations, and it will affect all other areas, from migration to the issue of social justice.

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