There is this sentence by the liberal icon Karl-Hermann Flach, which the FDP likes to quote: “Freedom is dying inch by inch.” The encroachments of the state on the basic rights of the citizens may be well intentioned and well justified in individual cases. Taken together, they threaten freedom. The constant addition tatters the Basic Law. That’s what was meant.

Based on Flach, one has to state today: Freedom dies by the ton, with every ton of CO2. The climate crisis narrows the space in which we can freely decide. Free from the constraints of a more misanthropic world, free from heat and heavy rain, from water shortages and floods, from crop failures and mass exodus. Extreme weather conditions influenced by climate change have long been a reality. But how hot and chaotic it will be, and how much future political action will be, can be shaped. Still.

Tomorrow’s freedom is defended today. What a huge opportunity that would be for a liberal party.

In the FDP, they actually saw it the same way before. “Renewable energies are energies of freedom,” said Christian Lindner in the historical special session in the Bundestag on the turning of the era, which can be understood economically and ecologically. Many liberals found the judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court, which obliged the previous federal government to commit to climate protection on behalf of the younger generation, to be encouraging. Anyone who constantly warns of new debts at the expense of the next generation does not remain unaware of the analogy with high CO2 emissions.

The FDP had arrived in reality. The party presented an ambitious climate program for the 2021 federal election. No more alibi claims, just a little principle of hope. When the lights came together, albeit painfully, one could get the impression that the days of friend-foe thinking were over. That climate protection is now actually only about the how. No longer about the whether.

Well, wrong thinking. Or?

This week, for example, it seemed as if Transport Minister Volker Wissing wanted to violate the applicable climate protection law – and had it approved by the Chancellery. Wissing and his ministry could assure you so often that they had done nothing of the sort. This episode is the youngest in a whole series with which the FDP gambled away a lot of climate policy capital.

The doubts from before are back. With political observers, with the Greens, with environmental organizations and activists anyway: Is the FDP really serious about climate protection?

This is not a trivial question. The mere fact that she turns herself in has consequences for the party, which feels wrongly suspected. The consequences for dealing with the climate crisis in Germany are even greater. How could this happen?

Berlin, end of March. Christian Lindner is a guest at Enpal, a six-year-old company that rents out solar systems and is said to be worth more than a billion euros. There are many men around 30 in the audience, white shirts, white sneakers. Home game for Lindner, he is familiar with the hosts, after ten minutes he takes off his tie.

As it should be in these circles, the evening begins with a pitch. With one that worked. Enpal boss Mario Kohle tells what it was like when he wanted to found his solar company six years ago. How he really dealt with climate change for the first time. How he realized that this isn’t about some starving polar bears, it’s about an existential threat to humanity. And how he finally found that there have long been technologies that can be used to counteract this.

Solar systems, storage tanks, heat pumps – everything is there, you don’t have to develop anything new, says Kohle. “Simply build and find business models for it.”

Now that’s not necessarily a plea for openness to technology. But there is a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in it, keen on the future, confidence. The sound of the FDP. When Lindner talked about employee shareholdings in start-ups and their taxation on this March evening, he could have framed it in a similar way: Anyone who finds cool business models for the climate pays less tax. He would have.

The sound of the FDP in spring 2023 does not sound like that. The liberals have retreated into a niche in the climate debate – and are igniting one synthetic firework after the other.

On the one hand, this is quite surprising. On the other hand, it can’t come as a complete surprise either. It’s in the nature of habit.

For a long time, what the Greens called for was considered sensible climate protection in Germany, because they were the first to act and their concerns were relieved. The suspicion that they wanted to distract from the unwillingness to do something for the climate was always attached to alternative ideas. This reflex continues to this day.

The FDP was late. After 2013 it renewed itself in the extra-parliamentary opposition. The climate crisis still came as a surprise to the party. Overwhelmed in terms of content and rhetoric, they met a politicized youth who understood intergenerational justice more than a moratorium on pension increases.

The Liberals had some catching up to do. And they caught up, in 2019 they decided on a policy paper on climate policy. But wherever you first look when it comes to climate protection, the Greens have already been there: in solar and wind power, in e-cars and heat pumps. All technologies that you have to use on a large scale. What you need to be able to live and produce climate-neutrally. Hardly anyone in the FDP doubts that. But you don’t just want to push what the Greens have been demanding for a long time.

Politics thrives on differences, on profiling through differentiation, on competition. Sometimes it pays to occupy a niche for this. However, you should notice when you have gone completely offside.

The FDP stands out in its niche. She has pushed through that cars with internal combustion engines can also be registered in the European Union after 2035 if they are only fueled with e-fuels, i.e. with climate-neutral fuels. The party is fighting just as hard to ensure that gas heaters can continue to be installed in Germany if they can later be converted to hydrogen.

E-fuels and hydrogen have a few things in common: They are only available in small quantities or hardly at all, are quite expensive, and are needed more urgently elsewhere than in cars or heating systems. Especially since there are still no vehicles that only fill up with e-fuels, nor are there really gas heaters that burn pure hydrogen. Experts doubt that this will change all too quickly.

There is little or nothing against using everything to accelerate the ramp-up of e-fuels and hydrogen with incentives and billions in funding. Both technologies are urgently needed, for example in air travel. But as a party promoting a new seriousness, perhaps one shouldn’t necessarily suggest a world of wonders.

When leading liberals act as if there could be nuclear fusion power plants in Germany in ten to thirty years, one wonders whether the road to the niche actually led down a side road.

The highway to the Paris climate target leads past wind turbines and solar panels, electric cars drive on it, and freight trains rattle past. You don’t know if you’ll arrive on time, but it’s the fastest way. The FDP, on the other hand, is currently mainly on secondary roads with speed limits, and nobody knows where they lead.

In principle, there is little to complain about. It is part of the self-image of a liberal party to maintain a certain skepticism about plans in which things are prescribed by the state down to the last detail. She still trusts in alternative innovations when others are convinced that they have discovered the methane-free jack of all trades. Added to this is this almost unshakable optimism. A liberal always looks forward to the future.

In concrete terms, however, this is a special challenge: not to communicate without a plan, with a half-full glass in hand and full of anticipation, in a reality in which time limits our possibilities. And where today’s climate is always better than tomorrow’s.

The FDP in spring 2023 is obviously not up to this challenge. Instead, the party even allows its climate policy to be misunderstood as fossil business-as-usual. That, contrary to clear decisions, it is not that serious about the climate goals.

For example, there was a study on the speed limit commissioned a few months ago by the FDP parliamentary group. She comes to the conclusion that at 120 km/h on the motorway, significantly fewer CO2 emissions are saved than the Federal Environment Agency has calculated. Which is a less surprising finding, given that the study’s authors have a history of being skeptical about human-caused climate change.

Anyone who hires someone like this can hardly be surprised that doubts about their own seriousness are growing.

The speed limit would offer the liberals the chance to defend forwards. Not because this would actually make a major contribution to climate protection. But precisely because it is so symbolic. Finally, the FDP rightly accuses the Greens of having prioritized the party’s peace of mind over climate policy benefits when it finally phased out nuclear power.

The same applies to the FDP and the speed limit. Anyone who is willing to make concessions on extremely ideologically charged issues is demonstrating determination in the matter, proving their seriousness. Anyone who expects something from their own people gains political climate capital.

Such a step requires more courage. But that has become a scarce resource among liberals. Five lost state elections have left their mark on the party leadership. She has prescribed herself the pure FDP fasting cure, preferring to talk about solid financial policy than stable climate realism. This only reinforces the urge to set boundaries. Because FDP is pure: at least three wind turbine blades away from the Greens.

In mid-March, when the FDP blocked the EU with their e-fuels protest, Johannes Vogel and Lukas Köhler presented a completely different proposal. Vogel is deputy party leader, Köhler parliamentary group deputy and most important climate politician of the FDP. Two liberals who are taken seriously. They suggest giving preference to emissions trading for transport and buildings. These are the sectors in which climate protection is still progressing far too slowly, and for which a fixed CO2 price has applied since 2021, currently 30 euros per tonne.

The European Parliament has just decided on exactly this certificate trading for transport and buildings, it should start in 2027. Vogel and Köhler are not doing this fast enough. They want to start using the instrument in Germany as early as next year. So that the price is formed according to supply and demand – and CO2 is saved where it is most efficient.

For some, this may still sound like the next alibi position, like a diversionary maneuver with reference to the principle of hope: the market will take care of it. However, this does not do justice to the instrument. Year after year, certificates are withdrawn from the market – until Europe is climate-neutral. In the FDP they like to talk about the “hard lid” that is lowering. Unfortunately, they beat him soft again themselves.

One can sometimes get the impression these days that the liberals have outsourced the climate issue to Vogel and Köhler, as a kind of two-man freedom guerrilla who give interviews, argue with activists and campaign for more speed in certificate trading at the party congress. Another part of the party, meanwhile, is busy sowing doubts that rising prices through a falling cap might not be such a smart idea after all. Transport must become climate-neutral, Transport Minister Volker Wissing recently said again. “But we can’t do that with bans, restrictions or higher prices.”

Can’t we do it with higher prices? A misunderstanding, it was said afterwards. But by then the damage had already been done.

Effective climate policy ensures that people behave differently than before. Be it because they are forbidden something that the FDP would like to prevent. Be it because the prices for fossil fuels are rising, which the liberals are demanding and have decided to do. Those who deal honestly with their own position are happy about price signals. Anyone who suggests consistency damages their own credibility.

Certificate trading only works as long as politics allows it. It must socially cushion the pressure to change that it generates. But she must not hesitate to intervene in the interplay of supply and demand because it seems politically opportune. You have to be able to trust that the market is allowed to regulate. Anyone who demands a tank discount when petrol prices are rising is not building this trust.

There is therefore a special tragedy in the reaction to Vogel and Köhler’s advance. Not because it was positively received by female scientists. But because the impression was created that the two had presented something incredibly new for the FDP. One can classify their proposal as if the Greens had explained again why they like cargo bikes.

In the thicket of the many ideas from the miracle forest of openness to technology, what the liberals had always wanted when it came to climate protection had been completely forgotten: dare more market economy. If the FDP is concerned about a politically functioning business model in the climate crisis, they correct this impression.

But it’s about far more than the good of the party. Climate protection cannot work against the liberal-conservative camp, against the majority of the bourgeois milieu. The FDP bears a special responsibility here, also because the CDU and CSU are not currently in government. It must anchor the urgency in people’s consciousness and do its part to ensure that the transformation becomes the background noise of society.

Looking forward to the future can’t really mean that everything stays the way it is. Changes are, of course, associated with impositions. But the liberals are currently doing little to prepare the country for this.

In the “Bild-Zeitung” you can read what triggered the heating debate in the FDP. Michael Kruse, the energy policy spokesman for the FDP, has just said that “Habeck’s scrapping orgy for gas heaters is entering a new round”. The former euro rebel Frank Schäffler is now also trying to be a heating hero. The Vice Chancellor’s law is “a nuclear bomb for our country”.

In politics there is this bon mot: Only Nixon could go to China. Only the conservative Republican was able to improve relations with the communists in Beijing as president. This can be transferred to the end of combustion engines and the heating hammer: only a government in which a bourgeois voice of car drivers and homeowners is involved will find broad acceptance for this. But the FDP uses all means of communication to resist being held jointly liable by the SPD and the Greens.

Of course you can want that: address those for whom the transformation is going too fast. They doubt that humans can actually stop the course of things. Or are optimistic that everything will always turn out well in the end. But the way the FDP reacts to criticism does not suggest that this is the political strategy.

In any case, it is difficult to identify something like a strategy at the moment. For a few months now, the FDP has been going where it never wanted to go again after 2013: in the Wagenburg. Criticism of the strangely misleading climate policy? Just the usual hatred of the FDP. Critical journalists? For some liberals, nothing but disguised climate activists.

The problem with a group of wagons: once you’re in, it’s difficult to get out. Where is this supposed to end?

At best, again with a quote from Karl-Hermann Flach, the party’s mastermind who died in 1973: “The question of the future of freedom, of the chances of liberalism remains. It is the question of the future of a humane society.”