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Why Americans in Germany need to call their members of Congress

OPINION: Just because you live on the other side of the Atlantic, that doesn't mean you can't influence politics in the US. Calling your congressman takes guts, but it can't be harder than talking on the phone in German, argues Alexandra Dufresne.

Why Americans in Germany need to call their members of Congress
Photo: DPA

Americans abroad today tend to fall into two camps:  worried and terrified. And for good reason. The President of our country recently threatened nuclear war. Members of his own party describe him as dangerous and unstable.   

The news from American is a constant stream of heartbreak. Just when we think it can’t possibly get worse – that we’ve finally hit rock-bottom – the bottom falls out again.

What can we, as Americans living abroad, do? A lot, it turns out.

As Americans abroad, we still have more political power than people in the world who do not have US voting rights – immigrants and refugees to the U.S., children, people living in Puerto Rico, civilians abroad, Americans disenfranchised, by law or in practice, and people in future generations, who will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

These people are, not coincidentally, those at greatest risk from the current administration. Given that we do have the right to vote, the least we can do is cover for them. Indeed, as Americans abroad, we can vote, organize, volunteer, speak out, rally, boycott, protest, donate and raise money for charities, advocacy organizations, and political candidates.  

We can also call our Members of Congress.  We can demand that they hold the President accountable and that they refuse to normalize his actions. We can ask them to hold themselves accountable, refuse to be complicit.  

Americans abroad often ask whether Members of Congress care about phone calls from American constituents abroad. The answer is yes. Why? Because our country is a representative democracy. Members of Congress do not put up with our calls out of good manners:  they take them because we are their boss. It is their job to represent us. If they don’t do a good job, we can replace them.   

Americans abroad often ask if they should call Members of Congress with whom they generally agree. Again, the answer is yes. Their staff are exhausted. We can call to thank them and to encourage them to keep fighting.  We can share policy ideas and perspectives from living abroad.  We can ask them to keep the issues we find most pressing at the top of their priority list.

Americans abroad often ask if they should call Members of Congress with whom they disagree. Yes. We can respectfully engage our Members of Congress who disappoint us. We can remind them, gently, that we are following their votes with great interest, and that we will remember their votes come election time.

Americans abroad often ask if they can just send an email or letter. No. We should pick up the phone and call. Why is calling more effective than writing? Precisely because no one wants to do it.  As a result, it is more rare, and more valued. Signing a petition or sending a postcard is easy. Talking on the phone is hard.

Calling is especially hard for people who are shy or do not see themselves as political.

At Action Together: Zurich, a group of American and Swiss to which I belong, we encourage Americans abroad to make their first call, through silly campaigns and lots of (positive) peer pressure.  Many of us were not “political” before; some of us are shy. But take heart: the person on the other end is a young staffer. You are not wasting their time: you are helping them do their job.  And there is no way that talking to them is harder than speaking on the phone in German.

So put the numbers for both the D.C. and the local office of your members of Congress into the contacts of your phone. Sign up with advocacy organizations for issue briefs. Make calling a habit, like recycling, or saying thank you.         

Americans abroad sometimes ask how we can be sure that calling will make a difference. We can’t. But we call anyway. Why? Because we are members of representative democracy, however fragile and imperfect. As such, it is our job to tell our representatives when they are not representing us faithfully. Because if not us, then who? It is still our country.  And we – we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Alexandra Dufresne is an American lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland and one of the co-founders of Action Together: Zurich, CH.

OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy ‘homework’ – and faces years of catching up

Germany's energy crisis is the result of decades of failing to take action - and now residents face tough times. Brian Melican looks at what went wrong and asks why Germany isn't doing more to become energy independent given the scale of the problem.

OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy 'homework' - and faces years of catching up

One of the most common figures of speech in German political debate is “doing one’s homework”. “Da hat die Politik mal wieder ihre Hausaufgaben nicht gemacht!” – “Once again, the politicians haven’t done their homework!” – is the usual refrain when something has gone quite predictably awry. Part and parcel of day-to-day politics in Germany, into other cultural spheres, this accusation is considered insufferably patronising. During the Euro crisis of 2012, for instance, the Greeks grew tired of being told, like petulant teenagers, to “go away and do (their) homework”. So it’s hard to begrudge them their audible Schadenfreude now that the self-styled schoolmaster has been caught with a briefcase full of unmarked essays.

While the details of the current energy crisis into which Germany has manoeuvred itself are technically complex – turbines and export permits; prolonging the service life of nuclear reactors or even recommissioning them; adjusting the amount of gas-generated electricity in the grid to varying degrees between north and south – the overall picture is so simple that every schoolchild can understand it: we have been putting off our homework for too long. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage: Five challenges facing Germany right now

Years of inaction 

The assignment was set long ago. Back in the late 1990s, climate change first hit the political agenda and the Kyoto Protocol bound signatories to reduce greenhouse emissions. What’s more, Germany, as a country with few natural resources but a large industrial economy, has long been dependent on in importing astronomical amounts of oil and gas from foreign regimes – an approach whose weaknesses started to become apparent in the Oil Crises of the 1970s. As such, the task was clear – to radically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – and the student understood the learning objectives: contribute to saving the planet and gain a degree of strategic freedom.

We got off to a good start in 1998 by, for the first time ever, electing the Greens, who promptly proclaimed the Energiewende (green energy transition) and set about creating Europe’s leading solar and wind power industry. Unfortunately, however, the Chancellor they were under was SPD-man Gerhard “Greenhouse gasses? Russian gas!” Schröder and, in the background, industrials were assured that they wouldn’t have to take all the ecological stuff too seriously. 

Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin

Gerhard Schröder hugs Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Alexei Druzhinin

Then, in 2005 we elected Chancellor Merkel – and re-elected her three times on a more or less explicit platform of Keeping Everything The Way It Is. This could only be achieved by continuing to import fossil fuels – an ever increasing proportion of which came, in spite of the many clear and pressing dangers, from Russia – and shrinking our renewables sector so that money could still be lavished on tax breaks for motorists and nobody’s view would be spoiled by wind farms.

Now, the due date for our homework has come around and we have a serious crisis. Things, for the first time ever, can no longer be Kept The Way They Are: public buildings are no longer being heated/cooled, swimming pools are being shut, and monuments are not being lit; those of us on gas heating (i.e. the majority of households in Germany) will soon be paying anything from double to quadruple our current bills.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Everywhere we look, there are shortages: not enough gas means, in anti-wind-power southern Germany, not enough electricity too. Yet sales figures from DIY chain stores show skyrocketing sales of electric heaters; shutting public buildings reduces consumption there, but increases it in people’s homes… Like a schoolboy on Sunday evening counting and re-counting the hours, whichever way we divide our time, there’s not enough of it.

Gas heaters on display in Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning.

Electric heaters are among the many heating devices lining store shelves right now, like these on display in a Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

What’s astonishing, by the way, is not actually how bad things have got – and how bad they’re looking this autumn and winter – but rather that they aren’t already far worse. This is primarily due to Economics Minister Robert Habeck’s decisive early action and brutally honest communication: as a result, we have been unexpectedly successful in reducing dependency on Russian gas from 55 percent to 35 percent within four months and have, due to various comparatively painless efficiency savings, managed to cut our gas consumption by 14 percent compared to last summer. As such, the Federal Network Agency is now cautiously optimistic that, if this winter is not a particularly cold one, we may just about make it through without having to shut off the gas supply to swathes of our industry or whole cities.

This may sound like a national success story – and if we are indeed successful in maintaining this thin, increasingly wobbly veneer of normality into 2023, there will be a strong temptation to sell it as such, patting ourselves on the back for having been far-sighted enough to switch off the hot water in town halls across the country before it was too late and then allowing ourselves to get distracted. Yet depriving civil servants of warm water to wash their hands during some of the hottest months on record while half of them are on holiday anyway (Why wasn’t this already standard practice?!) does not a green energy transition make. It is the equivalent of writing the last line on that essay just as the bus pulls into the stop opposite the school.

READ ALSO: Cold showers to turning off lights: How German cities are saving energy ahead of winter

Winter is first obstacle of many

Any short-term successes must be put in the context of a mountain of uncompleted tasks in the medium term. Firstly, getting through this winter by the skin of our teeth will mean that gas stocks are even lower next April than they were this year. So we’d better hope that those liquefied natural gas terminals being rush-built on the coast are operational by then, and that Qatar – that oh-so reliable regime thousands of miles away on the Persian Gulf that totally shares all of our values – honours the contracts Robert Habeck managed to grovel us into earlier this year.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany on Wednesday in Wilhelmshaven.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany earlier in 2022 in Wilhelmshaven. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

We’d also better hope that the Suez Canal, through which tankers filled with the much-needed LNG will need to pass, remains open the whole time and that Russian submarines sneaking their way through the Bosphorus don’t generate “incidents at sea”; then there’s Putin’s air units stationed in Syria… After that, in 2024, we’ll also need to keep a close eye on the US elections: another chunk of the LNG planned to replace Russian gas is from across the Atlantic, and a second Trump Administration would probably be only marginally more reliable a supplier than Putin’s regime.

So despite the flurry of activity this summer and the understandable angst ahead of autumn, it’s not really this winter that we should be worried about. There is, quite simply, a massive disconnect between the monumental scale of action which would be required to make Germany truly energy independent and the diminutive dimensions of what is currently happening.

Right now, we should be making it a legal requirement for landlords to switch heating systems from gas and legislating for state-funded factories to meet the demand this would generate; we should be immediately reactivating some of the thousands of kilometres of freight tracks Deutsche Bahn has dismantled in recent years – and drafting laws to make hauliers use these rail connections. Instead, we are jerry-rigging up LNG terminals and mucking about with flash-in-the-pan €9 tickets while we continue subsidising car-drivers enormous sums to burn petrol. 

Oh, and given that – who could have guessed? – Russia is barely respecting its supply commitments anyway, we should finally do the decent thing and stop importing Russian gas now. Would that add to our dire predicament? Yes. But perhaps, in order for us to start taking our homework seriously, we need to learn a few lessons first.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take for Germany to turn off Russian gas?

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