In Berlin, from the Bundestag to the classroom

We spent 10 days in Berlin, where we talked to two researchers who have taken very different approaches to working on climate policy: Hermann Ott, a Green member of Parliament, and Miranda Schreurs, the Director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University of Berlin.

Hermann Ott

We had lunch with Dr. Hermann E. Ott, a member of Parliament since 2009, and the climate policy spokesperson for the German Green Party, which holds 68 of 622 seats (11%) in the Bundestag, the German Parliament, as part of the opposition. He's been working on environmental and climate policy for most of his career, most recently as the head of the Berlin office of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy before running for office.


We started off talking about books. Hermann waxed nostalgic about his days doing social service work, when he'd spend evenings reading a book every day -- classics, nonfiction, science fiction, etc. He finds less time to read now, but still enjoys science fiction, along with heavy doses of policy. (We recommended that he try reading Kim Stanley Robinson's books, which deal with climate science and policy and environmental scenario-building.) "I sometimes feel like we're all in a bad science fiction experiment. I even had a rose bloom in December! For the past several years, there's been a consistent script...we got better data, the 1997 Stern Report, and we were getting ready to make the investments we need. But then saving banks and enterprises cost a lot of money, and then Copenhagen -- it's sort of a counter-script."

Entering politics

"Throughout my career, I've tried to work at the place where I can have the most impact. I'd been offered a position at the foreign office, but I didn't think it was the right place to be at the time...As a researcher, I found myself doing work associated with advocacy--which is a very shady area in our profession. I eventually found myself naming names of specific obstacles. As a community, we're trained not to do that because of concerns about funding.. I was talking specifically about industries like steel, auto, and electricity. The most aggressively anti-climate of these were the energy companies, but many were part of an "Eco Watch" group, an anti-environmental lobby group.

"I got involved with the Greens in 1999. I was against their support for the Balkan War but stayed on, paying membership fees. In 2006, after we had lost the election, I moved to Berlin, where I found that even Greens were not always well informed on climate issues. I ended up writing a climate policy paper called Radicalism is Realism. I decided to run in 2007. I'm a recent politician, not molded by years of the political process. As a politician, I've learned to trust my instincts more. As a scientist, we always distrust plain reasoning...In 2008, I published a book called Sustainable Germany in a Globalized World, and in 2009, the Greens released our New Green Social Contract. I miss research work. The last year was crisis-filled, and I'm looking forward to summer."

Rethinking green economics

"I've been wondering about whether one can have a market economy without growth...Among Greens, the ecologists understand that constant linear growth makes no sense. Those on the left often understand the concept of cycles. Many people find the idea of shrinkage alien, even unthinkable. The idea is to shrink the energy and material impacts of living by 95%. Now there are many ways to get there. One way is the path of dictatorship, depopulation, something a few deep ecologists have contemplated. But for me, I wouldn't call myself an environment protectionist, but a mankind protectionist.

There's a tremendous amount of work in this space. For example, the Stockholm Environment Institute has developed about sixty-seven different narrative scenarios on what different climate futures could look like, be they technocratic, pastoral, dictatorial...but only strong sustainability will lead us anywhere. Some say that you can have economic growth with shrinkage, but I'm skeptical of how feasible that is...Green economic and environmental groups recently met to talk about some of the options, how to think about decoupling money and resources...we [the Greens] have about 20 staff members in Parliament thinking about these issues, including transportation...I'm lucky to be working inside possibly the biggest Green think tank in the world...I'm hopeful."

Miranda Schreurs

We met Dr. Miranda Schreurs at her office at the Free University of Berlin, where she's the director of the Environmental Policy Research Institute. She's also an encyclopedia of international climate policy initiatives, an avid connector, and an incredibly down to earth American living in Berlin. We spoke to her class one evening, when we found students busy thinking about international climate policy, as well as the personal ethics of climate, food, and travel. The next evening, we got the chance to chat, as we peppered her with our questions. Here are some of our favorite bits.

Export of carbon emissions to China

"A British study of carbon leakage reported that one-fourth of the reduction of British emissions came from the shift of manufacturing to developing nations...when Germans brag about their progress, it's good to discuss the leakage issue. And yet, developing countries can also abuse the leakage argument to remove the focus from their own issues. I've been thinking about how to deal with this. China might consider addressing how different bands of Chinese may have different levels of have an internal north-south divide."

Swiss transportation policy

"Switzerland is quite restrictive. Government officials aren't allowed to fly for travel under eight hours. Switzerland is actually quite interesting. They're very sensitive to environmental issues. The central government allocates infrastructure funds to cantons based on how well they do increasing transportation efficiency."

Regional vs. centralized action

"Both the EU and the US have regional climate change initiatives, but there are limits to how sustainable big cities can be, since they don't always have authority over grids or roads. The general thinking tends to be that local initiatives are good. We need a decentralized approach for small areas, and centralized for larger impact. Denmark has a good combination of decentralized energy initiatives, as well as central government work on things like wind energy, which makes up about 30% of their portfolio. Scandinavian countries are doing a great job. Norway's up to 98% renewables, mostly hydro, and Stockholm's doing very interesting work around comprehensive planning."

International NGOs

"[International] NGOs play an important role, where they have respect from countries. Some small nations desperately need the support of NGOs, but they have impact even in China, where the NRDC has helped introduce ideas like market-based trading concepts for emissions, for sulfur. They work to educate government officials on the issues...The Chinese can be quite receptive. I remember there a process where Chinese officials were getting external input around environmental governance issues. They received eight main recommendations, and a year later, five of the eight had been adopted. NGOs are important because they can be more flexible than the government, and counter government policies ideas with alternate proposals."

Addressing Indian and Chinese resistance to carbon reporting

"China and India are bringing up sovereignty arguments, but this happens all the time. We've seen this around labor and health standards. I suspect monitoring will happen, but it may start later. The larger problem may be that the data itself is bad, and that governments are worried that monitoring may expose the quality of the data. There are now more initiatives in place to help emerging economies understand what monitoring means. It's possible that adoption can come from a totally different angle, as countries work to better understand their own systems."


"The UK and Germany are referred to as the dirty men of Europe, because of their historical reliance on coal. The difference was when in the 1960s and 70s, when acid rain came from Germany to Scandinavia. There were tremendous mobilizations, helping organize civil society as a base to address environmental questions. Over time, these movements moved from protest to running green candidates. The Green party was largely impotent, not important in the grand scheme of things, but their presence put the environment of the agenda of all the other parties. And then the Chernobyl disaster occurred, which resonated with an emerging back to nature movement...There's a reason why environmental politics has a strong base here, since the 1980s. From 1981 to 1982, Germans were discovering that there forests had been killed by acid rain. The Green Party won several seats in 1983. The ozone layer was in the news on 1985, and Chernobyl was a major crisis the next year. In 1988, Germany saw a hot summer drought, its own local climate catastrophe.

"Angela Merkel has done some good work, but she's impacted by calls to slow down, saying Germany is going too fast. Germany has much to be proud of, but if it stays proud for too long, it can expect to be surpassed, unless there's a strategy in place where the future of the economy is based on a green economy."

Next post: Reclaiming the airports in Berlin

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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