You could say Julia Klöckner drew the short straw — becoming Germany’s Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection in 2018, right as the impacts of climate change really started to decimate the nation’s iconic forests, which cover almost a third of the country.
And those impacts are no joke: From 2013 to 2017, there were seven wildfires in German forests. In 2018, there were 36 wildfires. That’s not the only extreme-weather related crisis: Bark beetles, which thrive in warmer weather, are devouring spruce trees at alarming rates, and droughts and storms have done their share of damage. The forests are under serious threat. Klöckner’s thesis, therefore, is simple: Save the forests, and they’ll save Germany.
Blonde and quick to grin, Klöckner, 46, was born in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and got into politics early, shortly after her yearlong reign as German Wine Queen, a position that’s sort of like Miss America but for German wine. Before the age of 30, she was a member of the Bundestag for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel’s ruling party. In 2012, she was elected as one of the deputy chairpersons of the national party. By 2016, she was running for Minister-President (governor) of Rhineland-Palatinate. Articles touted her as a potential successor to Merkel. And then she lost.
she has the difficult job of juggling these different interests and keeping everybody happy.
Joachim Curtius, professor of geosciences at Goethe University
Klöckner’s more conservative than Merkel in some ways, a trait that hasn’t always served her well electorally. Her opposition to Merkel’s open-door asylum policy is widely blamed as a factor in her losing her 2016 race, and as recently as this year, she called for a burqa ban in Germany. Still, while the ultraconservative AfD party has wholeheartedly embraced climate change denial, Klöckner — as minister of food and agriculture — doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring scientific evidence. “The climate change has hit us much faster than expected,” she said at a forest summit last month, and while the scientific community might argue that it was definitely expected, she’s now gearing up for battle against the conditions that are destroying the forests.
“Climate change isn’t German; it isn’t going to be solved in Germany. None of the existing policies around the world are up to the scale of the challenge,” says Britta Frischemeyer, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, when asked about Klöckner’s plans. “The [forestry sector] is the only sector providing opportunities for carbon sinks, and both provide bioenergy and wood for other sectors like energy, traffic or buildings.” Germany does have a plan to save its forests, even if critics see it as still too vague.
“She is of course in a difficult position, because the farmers and the forestry people — their standard procedure is to ask for more money,” says Joachim Curtius, professor of geosciences at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “The agricultural lobby in Germany is very strong. And she has the difficult job of juggling these different interests and keeping everybody happy.” But after the last two years of extreme weather, there’s an unprecedented debate about climate change in Germany, and political parties are under pressure to change things to become more environmentally sustainable. They haven’t always made good: A recent climate package announced a carbon tax, but one so low that environmentalists dismissed it as barely useful.
Here’s what Klöckner wants: $886 million to reforest Germany. Climate change has so far affected nearly 2 percent of the country’s forests, according to forestry organization AGDW, and the plan calls for all those trees to be replanted, though perhaps not with the same tree species, but with more diverse and extreme weather–resistant varieties. She’s also spoken out separately about other environmental plans, including exhorting Germans to start building wooden houses again — the wood, even when used as a material, is a carbon sink and helps to retain excess carbon.
“We need nearly 300 million trees planted in the next year,” says Larissa Schulz-Trieglaff of the AGDW, which represents forest owners (about 49 percent of Germany’s forested land is privately owned). The organization approves of Klöckner’s plan, and of her methods for making it: “She visited different forests to look at the results of the crisis … and she asked our association: What are the problems? What do you need?” They don’t expect her to find a swift solution though, as it involves millions in taxpayer dollars — and climate change isn’t exactly an easy problem to solve.
In the short run, it may not make her popular either. A poll published by Der Spiegel last month found that Klöckner was the second least popular politician in the cabinet, tied with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman who succeeded Merkel as leader of the CDU, a job many once believed would be Klöckner’s. Still, an EU poll over the summer found that climate and the environment were the most pressing issues for German respondents — so success here could make Klöckner a champion once again.
Her road to climate warriorship hasn’t always been smooth. Over the summer, Klöckner released a video praising Nestlé for making its products healthier, in what many dismissed as a PR stunt — or worse, a missed opportunity to confront the company over the deforestation wrought by its cocoa plantations. When the trees fall in the forest, will she truly hear it?
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