Germany’s Forests Damaged by Droughts and Wildfires, Stoking Climate Debate

Germany’s forests – long a source of pride and national identity – are feeling the heat.

A second consecutive year of unusually dry and warm weather has left swaths of dead and dying trees, fueling fears that the storied woods in more than a few of the fairytales by the Brothers Grimm could be heading for an unhappy end.

Officials say droughts, wildfires and hungry beetles destroyed 110,000 hectares (270,000 acres) of forest in Germany in 2018 and the damage this year could be even worse.

The sight of bare trees has stoked debate about the impact of climate change and what measures this heavily industrialized nation should be taking to adapt to and prevent global warming.

A poll released Friday by public broadcaster ZDF found 62% of German voters say it’s the most pressing problem, higher than any other issue.

And while tackling climate change has broad public support across the political spectrum, the environmentalist Green party appears to be benefiting most, with the ZDF survey showing it would take 25% of the vote if there were a general election, more than doubling its result from 2017. The representative telephone poll of 1,307 voters conducted Aug. 6-8 had a margin of error of up to 3 percentage points.

The Green party, which was founded 40 years ago when Germans were witnessing the effects of acid rain on their forests, has demanded drastic steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, putting pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats, which currently form a coalition government.

The Cabinet responded by pledging to agree a package of measures next month that could include some form of carbon charge and tax breaks for rail tickets to cut domestic air travel – though proposals to raise the price of bratwurst and other meat were swiftly dismissed.

The conservative governor of Bavaria recently proposed bringing forward the deadline for shutting down Germany’s coal-fired power plants and suggested climate protection should be included in the country’s constitution.

Last week, state forestry ministers from the Union bloc called for 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) to be spent over the coming years to restore ailing forests and make them fit for a warmer future.

Meanwhile, hard-line environmentalists have pointed to the ongoing dispute over an ancient forest in western Germany that’s at risk of being destroyed for a nearby mine.

Hambach Forest sits next to a massive open-cast lignite pit operated by utility giant RWE. An expert proposal to end the use of coal in Germany by 2038, approved by the government, was meant to save the forest, but activists say RWE is endangering what’s left of the woods by pumping out precious groundwater.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg on Saturday visited the forest, where she met with environmentalist protesters and demanded that “our war against nature must end today,” the activist group End of Story said in a statement.

The 16-year-old, whose protest movement has mobilized tens of thousands of students across Europe each week calling on leaders to do more against global warming, said seeing the mine disturbed her deeply and that the time had come to stop talking and take action.

Thunberg, who is planning to set sail next week for a U.N. climate summit in New York, in March dedicated an award she received from German media to “those protecting the Hambach Forest and the climate activists who fight to keep the fossil fuels in the ground everywhere.”

Merkel has acknowledged feeling the pressure coming from Thunberg and her mostly young supporters, but cautioned that “we are also taking new directions, and these new directions must of course be thought through.”

Experts say whichever course the government takes, Germany’s forests are in for a change.

Spruce trees, once popular for their timber, have been suffering from rising temperatures for several years now, said Andreas Bolte, head of Germany’s Thuenen Institute of Forest Ecosystems.

“What’s new this year is that we had real problems with beech in some areas,” he said, noting that pines and oaks are also beginning to hurt.

Scientists are hoping that trees more resistant to heat, such as Douglas firs, can replace native varieties, which will continue to thrive at higher altitudes.

Photograph: A firefighter battles a fire burning in a forest near the village Beelitz, south of Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. Photographer: Ralf Hirschberger/dpa via AP.