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Why climate change is not on Russia’s agenda

In Russia, global climate change has already had serious economic, environmental and social impact. A heady mix of conspiracy and inertia is to blame.

In March 2015, Russia became one of the first countries to submit its ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (the actions a national government intends to take under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). In preparation for the COP-21 in Paris later this year, Russia announced that it is ‘likely’ to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25-30% of its 1990 levels by the year 2030 (if all countries share climate responsibilities and Russia’s forest reserves are taken into consideration).

This generous figure immediately provoked a sceptical reaction amongst the international community and national environmental NGOs who pointed out that this commitment might not require Russia to implement any purposeful reduction of its emissions levels.1 On the contrary, this reduction target might actually accommodate a slight increase in emissions.

Once again, Russia’s participation in global climate politics is causing controversy.

Regulating climate

Russia has one of the most carbon intensive economies in the world, making the country an important player in global climate politics. But Russia’s commitment to seriously tackling climate change has always been questioned.

For example, following the economic collapse after the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Russia’s GHG emissions fell well below the permitted levels as stipulated in the Kyoto Protocol. Yet Russia took a total of six years to agree to sign and ratify the Protocol which was supported by a very limited number of climate related initiatives at the national level and subsequently did not have a substantial effect on the country’s GHG emissions.

Firefighters, soldiers, volunteers and local residents fight forest around Moscow in 2010. Photo (c) Alexey Nikolaev/DemotixIn 2009, beginning with the acceptance of the Climate Doctrine and culminating with the signing of a presidential decree on reducing emissions, Russian climate policy started to become more proactive and coherent. This positive turn in Russia’s climate policy is perhaps due to Russia’s realisation of its extreme vulnerability to anthropogenic climate change.

Russian climatologists stress that global warming is taking place at least 30% faster in Russia than in the rest of the world and its negative consequences can already be seen in the increased number of extreme weather events, which have resulted in serious economic and human losses. Another more powerful motivation behind changes in Russia’s climate policy can perhaps be attributed to its understanding of the potential economic benefits that come from tackling climate change through energy efficiency policies.

Russia’s participation in global climate politics is causing controversy.

Whatever Russia’s reasons for taking these positive steps may be, they were still not deemed sufficiently important to adopt a stricter GHG emissions reduction commitment.

Silencing climate

Russia’s overall weak climate policy can be explained by a number of factors: the prioritisation of economic development over environmental protection; the close connections between the state and the energy sector; the weak position of environmental institutions; and the low level of awareness and concern about climate change among the public.

The latter factor presents a particularly interesting case and helps explain why it has taken Russia so long to even begin talking about climate change.

For years, the topic of climate change was barely part of the public discourse. When it finally entered the debate, climate change was often presented either as a positive development for Russia and Russians (in the form of lower electricity bills and an overall softening of the climate) or as a secondary concern to other more pressing social problems (unemployment financial crises, military conflicts).

Despite a minimal increase in coverage, in comparison to other countries, climate change still receives relatively little attention from Russian media. For example, a comparative study of Russian and US newspapers showed that US media outlets covered the Kyoto conference of 1997 over 20 times more frequently than their Russian counterparts. The Copenhagen conference of 2009 was mentioned 15 times more frequently by US media than Russian media. A further study, which compared the climate media coverage in 27 different countries, discovered that Russian media had the third least mentions of climate change.

On the rare occasions that climate change makes it onto the Russian media’s agenda, it is presented in such a way that it corresponds with the state’s official policy. At times, national TV programmes and newspapers have even perpetuated conspiracy theories about the origins of climate change and international policies designed to combat it.

Conspiring climate

The Russian internet is filled with climate conspiracies. Here, climate change is either dismissed altogether as a myth or as a western plot designed to undermine the economic growth of developing states. Its causes are explained away as ‘simple’ modifications in the planet’s natural movements.

2010: Firefighters, soldiers, volunteers and local residents fight forest fires around Moscow. Photo (c) Alexey Nikolaev/DemotixThe internet also doesn’t pull its punches against environmental activists, especially those working for major international organisations. Activists are often labelled as ‘eco-fascists’ who contribute to the global ‘eco-hysteria’, whilst international NGOs such as Greenpeace are compared with the Taliban and presented as an extension of the American Satanic Church.

The power of conspiratorial online discussions is in their definitive nature, which does not allow for engagement with other explanations for climate change. The arguments against conspiratorial ideas only further cement the authors’ opinion that they are right, making it almost impossible to refute their assumptions.

Changing climate

Climate change conspiracies are by no means exclusive to Russia. However, the conspiratorial approach to climate change in Russia signifies a number of very important issues.

First, by allocating the blame for climate change on extra-terrestrial forces or on the ‘evil west’, conspiracy theorists remove the responsibility to tackle climate change from the Russian people. Second, it signifies the resurgence of a Russian climate scepticism that had only recently started to disappear from the official discourse.

Despite these negative trends in Russia’s climate change debate, there is still a stubborn commitment from the environmental community to push climate change into the spotlight. Here, the internet is used in order to promote climate discussions, attract the attention of the traditional media and influence people’s behaviour and perceptions about climate change. For example, the Russian-language branch of the 350.org climate movement uses a range of platforms: web pages, Facebook and VKontakte.ru groups, Twitter accounts, and YouTube.

Another successful example of Russian climate change online communication is the ‘interactive portal’ clicr.ru (promoted by Oxfam-Russia), which aims to unite various actors in the fight against climate change and also maintains an active presence on multiple platforms with hundreds of followers, group members or readers. Whether such efforts can launch climate change firmly onto the Russian agenda is still to be seen.

About the author

Marianna Poberezhskaya is a lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Politics and IR, Nottingham Trent University. She received her PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Nottingham, and recently published Communicating Climate Change in Russia: State and Propaganda (Routledge).


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