Renate Künast on Germany's Greens Leading the Way

German politician Renate Künast. Julia Zimmermann / Laif-Redu

Widespread protests over Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to extend the life span of the country's nuclear-power plants have given another boost to the Greens, who look poised for unprecedented success in next year's state elections. The biggest coup could come in Berlin, where party chairwoman Renate Künast has a good shot to become the first Green to head a state. Künast spoke with NEWSWEEK's Mike Giglio. Excerpts:

The Greens started on the political fringe. How did the party move into the mainstream? Green issues are becoming mainstream. Everyone is talking green, but not all green speech really leads to green actions. A lot of politicians, even the chancellor, talk about green issues. But the more important point is to walk the walk. They are not walking.

What would a Green leader in Berlin mean for the party? We can show that we want to be, can be, and are ready to be responsible for the whole. Society has changed, but we have also broadened our views. People recognize today that the Greens are not a single-issue party that cares only for the environment. We focus on alternative energies, conservation, consumer protection. We are focusing on families and children, and education.

That's a big change from the party's activist roots. Has its definition of radicalism changed? We used to think that radicalism came in writing papers and outlining a far-reaching vision. It's not enough. Radicalism is when you have a vision but go forward step by step, one reform after the other.

Angela Merkel's image as "climate chancellor" seems to be fading. Is that deserved? This was a dream. She put herself in front of Greenland's glacier, and she really gave a radical analysis about what kind of change is needed. But there was never a radical practice. Even weeks after, she went to Brussels fighting to protect the German automotive branch from serious emission cuts for new cars. She fought against parts of the environmental package of the Brussels commission. You could say she weakened all the climate goals of Europe. You see it on the nuclear-power decision—this is all driven by lobby interests.

What message should Germany send at this week's Cancún climate talks? The industrialized countries must go ahead. Let's make ambitious reduction targets and take real action to reach them. Don't wait for others to start. Let's do the right thing, no matter where others are going. Germany has to lead that kind of change. To show that highly developed, industrialized countries can live, transport, and produce in a different way.

Do green issues provide an opportunity for women to lead? Women very often haven't been in the front line of politics [in many countries], so they haven't been making the decisions there. Women, very often, haven't been in the front line of big enterprises. But women are the ones dealing with everyday life. Dealing with food. Dealing with the very immediate environment where people live. They are the ones focusing on environmental issues at their roots. Thousands of women in many regions—Africa, India, China, South America—are fo--cusing on their environmental situation just where they live. They are the ones going for creative solutions—planting trees, implementing solar cookers, and so on. This is the push for change coming from the roots, or coming from the regions where people see and feel climate change.

Do you think green parties will become serious players elsewhere in Europe? We have broadened our perspective. It's not only fighting against climate change. It's also creating new jobs with this. And that's why we become more interesting for potential voters. I see many of us Greens in different European cities trying for this change. And there is evidence in cities and states in Germany that Greens not only predicted the iceberg to come but suggested how to avoid it.

Renate Künast on Germany's Greens Leading the Way | World