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The “Traffic Light” Coalition and the Conflict Zones of Socio-Ecological Transformation

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It really is difficult to think of any other German government since 1949 that has set about mastering so many challenges and launching so many timely initiatives at the same time. It has proven its mettle in addressing three crises: post-coronavirus policymaking, the war, and inflation. Despite all of its accomplishments, dissatisfaction with this government is rampant—indeed more so than was the case with just about any of its predecessors. This discontent is unquestionably related to a pervasive sense of pessimism that has only deepened during the last few months against the background of war, inflation, the energy transition, and glaring deficiencies in public infrastructure. And now, when the government can move past the crisis mode of policymaking and again set to work on its own terms, it is allowing mistakes to creep in, ones that conflict with its own progressive aspirations.

The current debate about Germany’s new buildings energy law (intended to set higher standards of energy conservation for both old and new buildings, ed.) conveys a durable impression of how quickly a government bent on carrying out ambitious plans can find itself facing a culture-wars-style blockade by segments of society and the media. The debate shows that attacks made by radical critics have struck a chord with the general public. The attacks emanate from a variety of sources, ranging from the Alternative for Germany Party, parts of the CDU, the tabloid Bild Zeitung, Cicero (a liberal-conservative monthly magazine), to the far-right editor/commentator Roland Tichy, who recently started another monthly called Tichy’s Einblick, and countless social media outlets. To that list we must add the contradictory behavior of certain factions within the FDP. Of course, these attacks would not resonate so much were it not for the miscalculations and mistakes of the government. And yet these blunders—which were swiftly corrected—would hardly have been worth talking about if there hadn’t been such a strong cultural counter-mobilization vis-à-vis Berlin.

Here it must be acknowledged once again that the transformation of society, along with its parallel processes of change, touches more spheres of life than merely the technological, economic, and socio-ecological. It is also a cultural challenge precisely because it concerns people’s lifestyles and vital habits. The closer the transformation comes to the entrenched habits of individuals and accustomed business practices, the stronger will be the potential resistance and the tougher the social and political bargaining processes. To capitulate in the face of their unreasonable demands would be just as dangerous as simply to ignore them.

How to enlist the “undecideds” as allies

When it comes to the question of how far the populace is willing to go in modifying individual behavior, on the whole there are two opposing camps, both of which must be understood in nuanced ways. If we wish to have a good climate policy, we need to convince the undecideds, offering them a bridge into the pro-climate-policy camp. However, it seems possible that we are experiencing just the opposite: parts of the “positive undecideds” on climate policy are becoming more skeptical. To prevent climate policymaking from losing its momentum or maybe even getting stymied entirely, and to ensure that the number of critics does not grow even larger and we don’t end up looking like the famous but old-fashioned Echternach Spring Procession, it is crucial to review the contradictions in our own procedures so as to regain momentum.
In Germany we lack experiences with successful transformations and political pivots that might act as models for the transformations going on today. Therefore, we must learn from our own mistakes. We know that transformations cannot be taken for granted; they cannot simply be deduced from the evidence-based forecasts of scientific studies or from the concrete negative consequences of climate change. Transformations create space for resistance and conflict, but the question remains: how many conflicts, detours, and setbacks can transformation endure? And above all: what can we learn from such conflicts and how can those insights enable the transformation to succeed more completely? That assumes that we make a more intensive study of the conditions that are most important to the success of transformations. Three conflict zones or areas of tension are especially important here: democracy, steering, and social justice.

One thing is clear: big and rapid advances in the digital and ecological transformation will not happen overnight. A backward glance at the industrial revolution shows that the reconstruction of economy, society, and culture by no means occurs in one fell swoop. Rather, great transformations are the sum of countless small steps, reforms, and changes. In democracies social and political processes of bargaining, decision-making, and implementation take a long time. Our complex, multi-level political system requires—and holds considerable potential for--cooperation; however, it is very vulnerable to veto-wielders. In any case an authoritarian style of governance with low tolerance for debate is rarely possible. And even it were, it would be unacceptable in a democratic polity. Besides, politics in democracies is primarily attuned to short-term prospects for implementation due to its short electoral cycles, the complexity of longer-term political measures, and uncertainty concerning future developments. Nevertheless, considering the catastrophic outcomes that threaten both human beings and nature in the wake of global warming, rapid and decisive political action is urgently necessary. This zone of conflict between the logic of democratic processes and the urgency of an ecological pivot establishes the framework within which the transformation will take place.

To endure this arc of tension between democracy and climate policy while avoiding substantial tradeoffs in the quality of democratic procedures, we need not only good communication on the basis of intelligible goals and processes, but also better schemes to sensitize and involve the citizenry at an early stage. Furthermore: It is not enough to stare down the enemies of democracy. It is just as important to look at the cooperative potential inherent in our system. To preserve that potential, greater flexibility in our quite reliable but rather slow-moving system will be needed.

When we turn to the issue of means, we enter the zone of conflict between freedom and responsibility. To what extent may or must business enterprises, households, and individuals be compelled to make changes in their behavior? That question especially touches the fields of energy use, mobility, and nutrition. Up until now, our political system has tried to ask as little as possible of citizens. Obviously, moralizing communication does not necessarily appeal to those who have good reasons for their behavior. Whether rationally justified incentives can bring about changes in behavior depends not only on how persuasive they are, but also on the extent to which they recognize and respect the variety of circumstances in which people live. That also means accepting and offering several different ways and means as options.

Those who deem the path of behavioral change to be too politically risky usually show greater enthusiasm for seeking out technological fixes. They are frequently encouraged in their quest by the hope of attaining the goal more quickly, sustainably, universally, and with fewer problems of political legitimation. While it’s true that good new technologies are essential to carry out a climate pivot, their deployment and effects depend mainly on given social circumstances and the degree to which these new technologies are accepted.

It may be legitimate to curtail freedom if by doing so one makes possible greater freedom under the changed conditions that climate policy eventually will create. But these limitations upon freedom may involve special burdens, since the results may not arrive until later and thus may benefit the next generation or other groups rather than those making sacrifices right now. In that case a prudent policy should offer appropriate social compensations to achieve a balance between winners and losers.

During the last three decades, inequality of income and wealth burgeoned despite economic growth. This trend toward greater inequality correlates with a blatant disproportion in responsibility for ecological crises. The richest 10% of the world’s population cause 45% of global CO2 emissions, while the poorer half of the world’s population is responsible for a mere 13% of those emissions.

In addition, climate policy measures, such as putting a price on CO2 emissions since the beginning of 2021, reinforce existing social inequalities, depending on how they are put into practice. Thus, economic inequalities can become a political hurdle for the socio-ecological transformation. For that reason, insufficient or absent social responsibility can make an ambitious climate policy especially vulnerable to those who oppose or seek to retard the transformation. The decarbonizing of the economy and society must go hand in hand with enhanced sensitivity to the likelihood that the burdens of change may be unequally distributed.

Processes of transformation are unimaginable and unmanageable without conflicts, setbacks, and detours along the way. To bring the difficulties of such transformations more clearly into view, it is not enough to talk about broad objectives or to assume a missionary posture. What we must do is formulate a strategy loosely based on mid-range cornerstones, one that takes seriously both the collective veto-wielders and the reservations felt by many in our society, without allowing ourselves to be led by them. To do so we need better early warning systems and expanded planning capacity in the government. We also require early intelligence-gathering and participatory processes, but also broad social alliances to negotiate compromises and find solutions in key policy areas at all political levels, then to put the outcomes into practice.
The fact that there are and will continue to be headwinds, acts of resistance, campaigns of opposition, and diverse forms of obstruction against the socio-ecological transformation is something to be taken into account, not lamented. The traffic light coalition as a whole, working cooperatively, should anticipate and prepare for anticipated anti-transformation activities.

If the transformation is going to succeed, several key steps should be taken: on one hand, honest cost accounting and handling of problems that might be expected; on the other—amid all the conflicts and existing differences--to emphasize more emphatically the opportunities for a better life that it will bring. In the upcoming processes of change, several issues are at stake. First, who is going to bear the costs of transformation? Second, will there be effective communication and will existing living situations be acknowledged. In grappling with those questions, it is important to recognize that many conflicts in an aging society will play out differently than they would in a more youthful one. In the ecological transformation socio-economic issues (who gets what, and under what conditions) merge with socio-cultural conflicts.

The strength of the traffic light coalition may be that, as an alliance that transcends specific socio-cultural milieus, it reflects competing societal interests and brings them into balance. But let us not be so small-minded and irritating as during the dustup over the heating law! What we need are open debates and advance agreements combined with reliable decision-making processes in the government. The traffic light coalition can become a force for progress if it approaches the great task of the transformation in a spirit of humility, recognizes existing conflicts of interest without capitulating to them, and foregrounds the opportunities presented by the transformation without downplaying its difficulties and demands. We must win over the undecideds. Currently, the traffic light coalition remains an anti-CDU government that still hasn’t cashed in its claims to be progressive. Things cannot go on as they did in the Merkel era. A new beginning is both sensible and possible. Transformations without conflict are unthinkable, but unnecessary quarrels are counterproductive. To avoid them, we must do a better job of making society’s cooperative forces feel included. The undecideds must be won over as active co-participants. It’s all about more inclusiveness!

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