Stop the blame game: Russia is waking up to climate change

By Vilena Valeeva

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During my last visit to Russia I was watching Russian TV – an awful source of propaganda and misinformation, according to many. To my surprise, one of the federal (i.e. government-controlled) channels was reporting about climate change in a primetime slot. To my further surprise, the program didn’t rehash the usual conspiracy theories about what a fraud global warming is, invented by western politicians with the goal of harming Russia. No, it was a rather good report, which explained the correlation between climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. I even noticed climate charts and the familiar faces of credible Russian climate scientists.

The main purpose of report was to explain the deadly storms and the general absence of a summer in Moscow this year. Indeed, the weather in many Russian regions is going nuts these days and it has become impossible – even for Russian television producers – to ignore climate issues. In recent years, forest fires in Siberia, floods in the south of Russia, and methane explosions in the Arctic tundra have all been pushing the climate topic into the headlines of Russian print and visual media.

A big step for Russia

But it’s not only the Russian media that has recently turned its attention to climate change. The so-called All-Russian Climate Week was held for the first time in May and June 2017. This Climate Week, which actually lasted a month, was a huge project with 422 events across Russia aimed at “informing the public about climate activities in Russia and drawing attention to global climate change.”

Interestingly enough, the Week was initiated by the Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development under the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. Now, that may not sound very impressive to German ears, given Germany’s ambitious climate goals and initiatives, but for Russia it is a big step. Such a level of state attention to the topic would have been unimaginable ten years ago, when climate change was a very niche issue, of interest only to a couple of enthusiasts. In my experience, when speaking about global warming back then, people would start to laugh and discuss the prospect of banana farming in the tundra. Now the subject is taken more seriously.

Of course, there are still many issues in Russia with respect to climate policy and sustainable development and there’s a lot of room for improvement. It would be naïve to expect a rapid change of heart and action on climate change and sustainability from a country whose main source of revenue is fossil fuels. It’s no surprise then that things are changing slowly in Russia in terms of, for example, moving on to post-fossil fuel policies. But they are changing.

Russia’s post-fossil potential

The Russian pro-climate coalition is growing slowly but steadily and includes officials from federal ministries, businesspeople, NGOs, and think tanks. Post-fossil options for Russia are also being discussed, albeit primarily among liberal and environmental circles and academics. However, after the oil price crash in 2014, more and more Russian officials have started to understand the necessity of fundamental reforms in order to diversify the Russian economy.

Russia is still incredibly rich in natural resources, and the issue of how to use this resource base sustainably has become a matter of public debate. This debate touches on topics like renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and tourism. Advocating Russia as a stomping ground for smart people, Russian economists often suggest that the future Russian economy should be based on the digital economy and technological innovations. The country still has the scientific and technological potential as well as the human resources to realize this vision.

Hope for change

Clearly, these discussions and developments are less visible to those who don’t speak Russian. Unfortunately, it’s terrible things like the Yukos affair or Vladimir Putin’s vacation pictures that tend to make it into the English-language news. So it’s understandable that many point the finger at Russia and outline horrific scenarios for its future. A case in point was the recent post on this blog by my colleague R. Andreas Kraemer, which moved me to write this piece. Contrary to what Andreas implies, Russia cannot be reduced to Vladimir Putin, his entourage, and oligarchs. A whole new generation has grown, which became evident this year when many young people participated in anti-corruption protests across Russia. These young Russians hate corruption and want reforms, they are open to Europe and European values, and they want to be heard in Russia and abroad. They bring the promise of positive change in Russia towards sustainability, efficiency and peaceful intentions.

Blame game is not the answer

In any case, it’s not a good idea to engage in a “blame game” with Russia, especially in times when “the West” has lots of its own sustainability issues to deal with – the many unsustainable policies announced by Donald Trump being the most obvious example. There’s lots of homework to be done in terms of fighting climate change, switching to renewable energies, and changing people’s consumption patterns, especially in the developed and highly industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America.

Mutual blaming will only contribute to a further deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, and it is important to maintain opportunities for cooperation. Sustainable development has proved to be very conducive to cooperation. In spite of all the challenges and crises, Russia is still cooperating within the framework of the UNFCCC and the Arctic and Barents Euro-Arctic Councils. These platforms are seen by Russia as a neutral ground where it can overcome its isolation and cooperate with the West. We should remember that given Russia’s vast territories and its energy-intensive industry, Russian efforts towards a more environmentally friendly economy are very important for global sustainability efforts. That’s why it is essential to keep Russia on board in global sustainability governance.

Cooperation and open dialogue

Cooperation with Russia should not be limited to intergovernmental and business levels. Global civil society and the scientific community also have a role to play and are already contributing to the development of relations with Russia in the field of sustainability. One small example is the Blue-Action project, where the IASS is conducting a case study on the Russian Arctic together with Russian partners. In a series of project workshops Russian and international stakeholders will not only contribute to enhancing scientific knowledge about the Arctic, but also cooperate to strengthen their capacity to deal with numerous challenges linked to an uncertain Arctic future. We see this project as a prime example of transformative science, where more sustainable futures can be achieved by engaging with relevant stakeholders – from Russia and elsewhere.

Header image: istock/wastesoul

2 Comments

  1. Ole Langniß   •  

    Vielen Dank für die einmal etwas andere Perspektive auf die russische Klimapolitik.

  2. Pingback: Stop the blame game: Russia is waking up to climate change | RNEI

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