The problems of environmental activism in Russia


Climate change is still of little interest to Russians. But why? на русском языке


Angelina Davydova
17 November 2014

This autumn, in cities worldwide there were climate-themed marches to tie in with the Ban Ki-Moon UN summit, the most of important of which was a 400-thousand-strong demonstration in New York; and Russia too passed a series of measures.

On 23 September, environmental activists from Moscow and Moscow Region pressure groups, together with Russian campaigners from the international 350.org movement, held a meeting in Moscow to publiсise their demands made to the official Russian delegation at the summit. These included:

  • - Cancelling tax perks for mining companies, and subsidies for Arctic offshore development
  • - Stimulating the development of renewable energy
  • - Halting the felling of protected forests for infrastructure construction; prohibiting the mining of minerals in fertile soil, the cancellation of development plans for nickel deposits in the Voronezh region.

  • In St Petersburg, local Greenpeace campaigners and volunteers joined the international day of action by drawing a huge 'portrait' of the Earth on the asphalt in the centre of the city. But the climate summit itself was very little reported in the Russian media: only one daily paper published an analysis of the proceedings, while some online resources simply reprinted translated material from international media outlets. 

 Little interest in climate change

Some of the climate NGOs, among them both international and youth groups, have been trying for several years to promote the theme of climate protection in Russia, but, in comparison with other environmental themes, this subject and related campaigning have so far enjoyed little public support. For Russians, it is too abstract, too global and its manifestations are not visible to all and sundry. Interest and a willingness to address environmental problems that are both near at hand and more 'obvious' (air, water, soil pollution, the greening of cities, locking horns with polluting enterprises, and ensuring environmental awareness in our daily life) may have significantly increased in recent years, but 'climate change' is still of little interest to Russians.

Moreover, over the years, Russian scientists and politicians have publicly denied the existence of climate change, preferring to attribute its results to climatic cycles or American weapons for use in climatic warfare; or declaring global warming to be in effect global cooling. But after the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009, the climate change question in Russia underwent significant change. Or perhaps 'came into operation' would be more accurate.

The Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, part of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, began issuing assessment reports on climate change and its effects on the Russian Federation (the first volume came out in 2008, the second in 2014), as well as annual and quarterly accounts of climate change in the RF and countries of the CIS; and quinquennial climate change bulletins. At the present time, the official position of Russian scientists and government departments is fairly unequivocal – climate change is real, anthropogenic and a threat, to Russia included.

However, opinions differ among Russian scientists. Oleg Anisimov, head of the Climate Change Research Department at the State Hydrological Institute, is one of the co-authors of the Fifth Report (vol. II) of the UN Intergovernmental Expert Group. In his opinion the Russian economy is facing a raft of problems resulting from climate change, but at the same time, new opportunities are opening up for the future development of the Northern and Arctic regions: the climate will become less severe, heating and electricity costs reduced, and navigation easier along the Northern Sea Route. Climate change will, however, increase the risk of Arctic flooding and have a deleterious effect on infrastructure.

The Russian economy is facing a raft of problems resulting from climate change, but at the same time, new opportunities are opening up

Some experts are more inclined to support the idea that climate change will be very harmful for Russia. 'Even in the Arctic, global warming is not beneficial for either the population or the flora and fauna: polar bears are under threat, damp and windy weather with accompanying unstable weather conditions are worse for the health than frost (northern people are used to that), and the Arctic is hardly a transport paradise because navigation periods increase very slowly,' says Aleksei Kokorin of WWF Russia.

Growing bananas in the taiga

On the whole, climate changes in the Arctic develop more rapidly, are more visible and significant, both in Russia and throughout the world; they feature regularly in the international and Russian media. But the Russian Arctic territories are the least populated (more than two thirds of the Russian population lives in the European part of the country) and this means that those changes happening in the north are not seen by most Russians. This is why the level of interest and concern is very low. Climate change is not the only problem which is not very visible – neither are oil spills far away from human habitation. Thus, even though local and federal Russian media carry information about oil spills – usually when ecological organisations have publicised them, or complained – there is a distinct lack of serious public reaction.

Climate change is not the only problem which is not very visible – neither are oil spills far away from human habitation

Paradoxically, various Russian regions have witnessed the results of climate change over a period of several years: Central Russian forest fires (2010), the floods in the Far East (2013) and in the Altai (2014).

Disasters like these are, as a rule, linked to climate change (among other issues), but are fairly soon forgotten because the media agenda changes and other problems are more pressing. For this reason, public consciousness has no concept of the positive outcomes that could result from climate change for Russia – for instance, the idea that it will be possible to grow bananas in the taiga (in spite of the fact that the soil there is not at all suitable for this). The idea that global warming could be a blessing, and soil fertility very considerably increased, is relevant for most Russians, many of whom already live in very difficult climatic conditions.

Researchers, however, diverge in their opinions on the influence of climate change on the agrarian sector. Oleg Anisimov says that harvest yields will increase markedly in most Russian regions; but Yury Safronov from the Higher Economic School in Moscow is sure that in future climate change will result in droughts and soil deterioration in Central and Southern Russia, the traditional agricultural regions, while only insignificant increases in harvest yields are to be expected in southern Siberia and in the North-West of Russia.

Survey data

The most recent Russia-wide social survey was carried out in September 2013 to investigate Russians' attitude to climate change; it was run by the inter-departmental working group on climate change and sustainable development attached to the Presidential Administration. Only 54% of Russians confirmed that they knew or had heard somewhere (36%) about climate change somewhere on the planet. Among those who support the idea of global warming, a third regard it as anthropogenic, while 42% attribute it equally to human activity and natural processes. More than 40% of the population considered climate change an important question, but one that has to be addressed at the same time as other, no less important problems. A year ago, more than 70% of Russians said that the problem should be dealt with internationally, and 45% supported a leading role in this for Russia, which should, in their view, sign up to unilateral obligations concerning greenhouse gas emissions. 37% were against such a decision.

Only 54% of Russians confirmed that they knew or had heard somewhere (36%) about climate change somewhere on the planet

59% of respondents consider human activity to be the main reason for global warming, predominantly greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. 63% think that in the long term climate change could kill off any living thing. Almost 33% are absolutely convinced of the extreme need for measures to avert dangerous climatic disasters, even if this means significant expenditure now. A recent global survey carried out in early 2014 by the Global Challenges Foundation demonstrated that Russians are becoming more aware of climate change and would like to see some definite action. Three quarters of Russians consider that climate change threatens the very existence of the human race.

Climate change as high politics

The recent inclusion of climate change in the political agenda is very positive. The higher echelons of government have actually stopped joking about it and now talk seriously about recognising it as a global problem. In December 2009, during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, Dmitri Medvedev signed Russia's Climate Doctrine, framing its policies for the immediate future. In September 2013 Vladimir Putin issued a decree setting out the national domestic target for reducing emissions by 2020 (25% less than 1990 levels). The target could only be domestic because Russia had not signed up to the framework agreement of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, officially for reasons of foreign policy, and also because, without the USA or China, the agreement had no teeth. To hit this domestic target, a set of measures and a national action plan to reduce emissions were spelled out in spring 2014. Today, market regulation of greenhouse gases is the subject of energetic discussion: the conclusions of the Ban Ki-moon summit put Russia on the list of candidate countries for the establishment of a carbon emissions market. And, perhaps surprisingly, 'Russia's not-uncomplicated relations with the international community resulting from the Ukrainian crisis have led to a significant increase in activity in the area of international environmental cooperation, signing and ratifying agreements and developing new models of working together,' says Yuri Safronov.

But this kind of 'high politics' has as yet had little effect on ordinary Russians. There has been no government public campaign about climate change – it is mainly community organisations and climate initiatives that work with the local authorities and citizens. Among these are WWF Russia, Greenpeace Russia, Ecodefence, Friends of the Baltic, and the Russian Social Ecological Union.

This kind of 'high politics' has as yet had little effect on ordinary Russians

Russian media also pay relatively little attention to climate problems, though leading federal channels still continue to put out items about global climate conspiracies aimed at depriving Russia of revenue from the sale of fossil fuels, or about world capitalist secret agents i.e. those environmental NGOs working to sabotage the Russian economy.

The ongoing campaign to identify 'foreign agents' among the NGOs in receipt of foreign funding has already affected one of them, which is working in the area of climate change – Ecodefense. The Justice Ministry included it on the list of 'foreign agents' and now its ecologists are trying to have this classification overturned in court. Representatives of the organisation are of the opinion that they are being so insistently targeted because of their campaign against the Baltic Power Station in the Kaliningrad region. But the organisation has also been very active in climate talks: regularly taking part in UN climate negotiations, publishing daily bulletins in Russian during the  'Below two degrees' talks; and thus sharing with Russian readers in Russia and other countries of the post-Soviet space their critical views on domestic and international climate talks, and the position of various nations.

Success stories

That said, there are several climate initiatives, which are nonetheless continuing to work in Russia. The climate section of the Russian Socio-Ecological Union (SEU) and Friends of the Baltic work regularly with schoolchildren, local government representatives and sections of the public on programmes linked to climate change, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Their last campaign 'Energy efficiency – the biggest, cleanest and cheapest source of energy in Russia' was aimed at promoting energy efficiency in the country. Within this campaign, and the framework of their school education project Spare, Russian ecologists have been collaborating with colleagues from the CIS and countries of Eastern and Western Europe.

Russian ecologists have been collaborating with colleagues from the CIS, and countries of Eastern and Western Europe.

Russian NGOs are working with German, Norwegian, British, Danish and Finnish colleagues sharing experiences and specific working methods carried out within programmes aimed at working with local government as well as promoting renewable energy, and developing local adaptation methods to climate change. On top of that, once a year the SEU gathers together organisations and civic initiatives working in the climate change, energy efficiency and renewable energy fields, from all the regions of Russia (usually about 40-50 organisations) to work on a united position for Russian civil society before the next round of UN climate talks at the end of the year. Several climate NGOs also work with the Climate Action Network Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia on UN climate talks and other global initiatives, educational programmes, information exchange, working methods and joint projects.

There are also youth climate initiatives, which are mostly Russian sub-divisions of international or global youth climate networks. These initiatives organise global actions (usually on the same day as in other cities throughout the world); they take part in educational programmes for young people, and work with ecology activists, as well as maintaining links with Russian and international campaigners. Some of these international initiatives launch local climate programmes, which generally target one region in the CIS and Eastern Europe. Many of them are not just disseminating information on climate change, but trying to involve young people in some specific movement or protest. It is this kind of programme that unites climate activism with the more general environmental activism, as well as urban and other local civic movements which have become very popular recently. An example of this kind of project is 'Climate Workroom' (part of 350.org), which supports and develops local projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency and developing renewable energy sources, low carbon forms of transport, and an environmentally-aware way of life.

Increasing Russian awareness of climate change, then, is happening albeit slowly. One indication of this is the reaction of the two biggest cities in the country – only very recently St Petersburg and Moscow announced that they are developing strategies for adapting to climate change.

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