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Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, global warming is escalating, extreme weather conditions are increasing dramatically. But strangely enough, the party dedicated to saving a crisis-stricken world is itself also in crisis.

Last Sunday the Greens’ alarm bells went off for the first time at the start of Germany’s election year. Certainly the Greens’ defeat in the German state of Saarland, where they will no longer be represented in the state parliament, has very specific causes not to be found elsewhere. But that’s little comfort for the environmentalist party. Their polls numbers in North Rhine-Westphalia, where elections are to be held in May, are somewhere around 6 percent, nationwide at 8 percent – or less. These days, old hands in the Green party are grimly taking note that the party has always done better in the opinion polls than in the elections. Even there, they are currently hovering just above the minimum level for survival.

There were already signs of a looming Green crisis before Martin Schulz took over the Social Democrats. But with his enthronement as the most promising candidate for chancellor, the Greens’ situation has been exacerbated even further. As positive as the revived competition between the two major parties is being seen, just as unpleasant are the immediate consequences for the Greens themselves. For the polarization is directing attention to the two big parties and away from the efforts of the smallest opposition party.

They may be the ones raising the existential political issues – from climate change to the global refugee crisis – but at the same time they are unable to plausibly show how they could achieve the sweeping changes they seek after the fall elections. The urgency of their demands is in sharp contrast to their lack of prospects of taking political power. The Greens continually profess that they are first of all concerned about their political goals and only then about coalitions. And yet they know that it will be all the more difficult for them to give weight to their issues in the election year the less concrete their chances of achieving them appear. Without prospects of gaining power, no coverage of their issues, and without coverage, no gratifying prospects of being elected, no success in being elected, no prospects of power. That is the vicious circle the Greens must break out of in the coming months.

It’s easy to pinpoint the exact date when the party’s latest crisis cycle began. It was the night of October 15 to October 16 2013, when, after the last federal election, the exploratory talks for a coalition with the Christian Democrats collapsed. After eight years in opposition, a pretty muddled election year and a disappointing result, the Greens were still offered the chance to participate in government. But instead of taking the plunge, the party retreated to the opposition benches, half intimidated, half defiant.

In opposition, the passed-up opportunity became an option for the future. For almost three years, not only the inveterate realists but also many leftists assumed that next time round there would be a CDU-Green coalition. The direction Chancellor Angela Merkel was taking with her modernizing social policy, phasing out nuclear power and the energy transition alone were enough to recommend her as a green-compatible chancellor. Then, with her refugee policy in the summer and fall of 2015, the Greens’ last reservations disappeared.

Thus it seemed only logical when at the beginning of the year the party base decided on a leadership duo who had for years been making an effort to persuade the Greens to work with the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Ironically, Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir were chosen just as it seemed possible that, with Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat could become chancellor for the first time in years. The whole strategic dilemma of the Greens was visible for a moment in the harsh reaction with which the two Greens reacted to the SPD party members’ euphoria over Mr. Schulz.

The new SPD leader has weakened both the Greens and the CDU. And with that, their mutual prospects of power are dwindling, while the revitalization of the SPD is not automatically bringing forth new possibilities. An SPD-Green coalition is still not a realistic option to build an election campaign around. And a coalition of the SPD, the left-wing Left Party and the Greens, as the elections in Saarland have shown, is problematic in the eyes of the voters.

That is why it is clearly necessary for the Greens – with or without Mr. Schulz – to hold to their "course of independence." They came up with it in 2005 at the end of the SPD-Green coalition, not because the Greens wanted to distance themselves from the SPD but because the alliance was simply unable to secure a majority. Since then, the Greens have been wooing voters with their program, not with power projections. "We are a party that defines itself on its own terms," explains Tarek Al-Wazir, who is governing together with the CDU in Hesse. The Greens are "able to connect with all sides," which only works well when the party also really radiates "self-confidence in its conviction in its program."

That sounds ambitious and confident, an ideal election campaign. It can also be seen from a more critical standpoint. "Independence" is also a term that can be used to gloss over a lack of coalition prospects. Or to minimize the demobilizing effect of opposing options. For CDU-Green is just as unsavory a prospect for radical Greens as SPD-Left-Green is for many centrist Greens.