Here in Germany, an over-inflated ego is regarded as a negative quality. To many Germans, U.S. President Donald Trump is arrogant and self-absorbed – ridiculous, if not dangerous. We Germans, by contrast, see ourselves as being normal by comparison, reliable and down-to-earth.
But what if that's a fallacy? What if we are merely suffering from a specifically German form of narcissism?
That might sound absurd at first. But with the 23rd UN Climate Change Conference having begun in Bonn on Monday, it won't just become clear in the next two weeks that the world is rushing toward the climate abyss at a constantly accelerating pace. Stock will also be taken regarding which countries have in fact reduced their greenhouse gas emissions in the last several years. And which have not. And once that happens, we Germans will be exposed for all to see. As blowhards.
Germany Is a Bad Example
The 25,000 delegates from around the world will quickly realize that the conference host is not an example to be followed when it comes to protecting the climate. The country where the very first global climate summit took place, the country that prides itself on having a "green" chancellor, the country that has continually fought for important steps forward on climate policy: That country is failing when it comes to national policy. The last three governments led by Chancellor Angela Merkel have enjoyed being a constant voice on global climate protection. Back at home, though, they haven't done much to advance the cause.
Here are the numbers: German has promised to reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020, relative to 1990 levels. Short of a miracle, though, the reduction will come in at just 32 percent. At first glance, that doesn't sound too bad. But much of the emissions reductions that have thus far taken place are the product of historical accident – the result of the downfall of East Germany, which led to myriad aging and inefficient power plants and factories being shut down. In the last 10 years, the German government has done much too little to put the country's economy and lifestyle on the path toward climate neutrality.
A Long List of Missed Opportunities
Take coal as an example: No country in the entire world burns more lignite than Germany. Yet there is no fuel that is worse for the climate. Nevertheless, no German government has thus far had the courage to come up with a plan for phasing out coal in the country. Fear of the energy lobby and the labor unions has been too great. The consequence is that, at the conference in Bonn, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Britain and Canada will all proudly announce that they are phasing out coal. Germany, though, will not.
Or take transport: The Dieselgate scandal revealed the extent of the auto industry's influence and how little the federal government has thus far been willing or able to call the emissions cheats to account. That's not just bad news for the residents of big cities and car owners. It's also detrimental to the climate and to Germany's competitiveness. When it comes to reforming the transport sector, by way of a ban on the internal combustion engine or, at the very least, on heavy diesel vehicles, countries like Norway, Scotland, France, Finland, Austria and Britain are already passing us by.
The list of missed opportunities is even longer: Nothing has been done about the thermal insulation of homes because Horst Seehofer, the governor of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, has blocked better state funding for the procedure. There has also been a paucity of progress in agriculture, even though a marked increase of manure on the fields and livestock in the stalls is responsible for a large portion of CO2 emissions. No one in the federal government has shown the nerve to take on the German Farmers' Federation, which just wants to export more and more German pork, steaks, milk and cheese to the rest of the world.
And it's exactly because German politicians, particularly Angela Merkel, make such a show of their climate credentials internationally that they can neglect the real work at home. Work like promoting an inexpensive CO2-free energy supply. Or offering new perspectives to regions currently reliant on coal. Or standing up to Daimler and co.'s lobbyists. Last but not least, voters should long ago have been persuaded that a high-tech country like Germany is in a position to achieve this transformation and, in doing so, create jobs in the auto industry or the energy sector here and not in California.
Making Fun of Veggie Day
Instead the government has preferred to suggest that while we Germans are indeed one of the good guys when it comes to climate change, we don't actually have to change our day-to-day lives one bit. Sure, there might be a few more wind turbines in the area and part of our energy bills go to paying for solar panels. But eating less meat, driving smaller cars or forgoing that 20-euro flight to Mallorca – none of that is necessary. We have been more than happy to believe it. And instead, we prefer to make fun of the Green party proposal for a Vegetarian Day at public cafeterias.
For patients suffering from narcissism, psychotherapy can help change some behaviors. But the climate conference won't be therapeutic. It will, though, provide an opportunity to learn from others. From Norway and its e-car boom; from the Danish cycling paradise; or from the British tax laws that provide tax breaks to drivers who chose climate friendly cars over gas-guzzling monsters. In an ideal world, the conference could act as an inspiration - for those currently involved in negotiating Germany's next government.
Translated by Charles Hawley