Study on Russia: The other per­spec­tive on climate change (summary)

Climate Change and Green Modernity still are difficult topics in Russia

Climate change and its con­se­quences are viewed dif­fer­ently in Russia than is the case in the West. The issue is under­stood as “part of a polit­i­cal game”. This dif­fer­ence in outlook has ram­i­fi­ca­tions for both polit­i­cal and eco­nomic coop­er­a­tion. The inter­view study “Russian Experts’ Opin­ions on Global Climate Change”, con­ducted by Russia’s Levada-Center and com­mis­sioned by the Center for Liberal Moder­nity, affords in-depth insight into the Russian elites’ per­spec­tive on climate change and its soci­etal and eco­nomic con­se­quences.

Russia’s rela­tion­ship to climate change and climate pro­tec­tion is an ambiva­lent one. The country already started exper­i­ment­ing with wind energy back in the 1970s, its climate experts began warning about the dangers of climate change early on, and the Russian gov­ern­ment signed on to the Paris Agree­ment, albeit some­what belatedly.

On the other hand, the fossil fuel sector makes up a good 20 percent of Russia’s GDP while modern renew­able ener­gies account for less than one percent. More­over, the Kremlin insisted for years that human activ­ity did not influ­ence the climate.

The study con­ducted by the highly respected Levada-Insti­tute and com­mis­sioned by the Center for Liberal Moder­nity, a Berlin-based think tank, uncov­ers the reasons for the dif­fer­ence in the per­cep­tion of climate change. The inter­views with Russian experts from the spheres of research, busi­ness, pol­i­tics and the media afford in-depth insight into the atti­tudes of the Russian elites towards climate change and its consequences.

Climate change did not even make it onto the public’s radar in Russia until a few years ago; there is no will­ing­ness to take indi­vid­ual or col­lec­tive action on the issue. Accord­ing to recent Levade-Center surveys, climate change ranks low on the Russian public’s list of imme­di­ate eco­log­i­cal prob­lems, although 75 percent of the pop­u­la­tion believes that human activ­ity plays a role in global warming.

The voices repro­duced in the study make it quite clear that the framing of the dis­cus­sion on climate change and efforts to combat in Russian society and among Russian elites is dif­fer­ent from that in the West.

Under­stand­ing this dif­fer­ent way of seeing the issue is impor­tant to under­stand­ing where atti­tude of Russian elites to Western climate pro­tec­tion ini­tia­tives, such as the Euro­pean Green Deal, comes from and what lies behind their engage­ment on behalf of Nord Stream 2, the natural gas pipeline.

Threat to Russian identity 

In Russia, global warming – along with the notice­able loss of “real” winter asso­ci­ated with it – is per­ceived as a threat to Russian iden­tity.  Yet the dis­cus­sion about causes and responses is seen as the sin­is­ter work­ings of anti-Russian forces. The pre­vail­ing feeling among parts of the pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing some of the elites, is that there is an attempt to blame Russia for the pol­lu­tion of the atmos­phere by green­house gases and the wors­en­ing climate around the world.

More­over, the dis­cus­sion about climate change is per­ceived as a Western dis­course. The state­ments cited in the study make it clear that the con­flict between Russian and the West forms the back­drop against which Russian elites see the climate pro­tec­tion mea­sures and their consequences.

Russia plans are dif­fer­ent: its “Energy strat­egy 2035” antic­i­pates an increase in exports of oil, natural gas and coal in the coming years. Thus, the Euro­pean plans for a drastic reduc­tion in the con­sump­tion of fossil fuels appear as an attack on Russian interests.

Several of the experts inter­viewed flatly dis­missed the notion of a “green” economy, seeing it as a pipedream doomed to failure. Initial forays in that direc­tion by the EU and more recently by the USA are assessed as attempts to squeeze Russia out of the inter­na­tional oil market to the advan­tage of the USA.

Inabil­ity to envi­sion a post-fossil future 

The hes­i­ta­tion or out­right rejec­tion with which some members of the Russian elites feel towards key mea­sures towards an eco­log­i­cal mod­erni­sa­tion of the Russian economy is asso­ci­ated with a fear that eco­nomic decline would result.

Par­tic­u­larly in the regions that are highly depen­dent on oil, natural gas or coal, people are unable to imagine the pos­si­bil­ity of another kind of eco­nomic activ­ity. Yet some experts are aware of the dynam­ics of the changes hap­pen­ing around Russia:  “‘[G]reen’ pol­i­tics [are] right at the start of their devel­op­ment. If it con­tin­ues at this pace, many coun­tries will simply no longer have a need for oil.” Some expressed concern about falling out of touch with devel­op­ments and suf­fer­ing sub­stan­tial eco­nomic damage as a result.

Ben­e­fits that an eco­log­i­cal mod­erni­sa­tion of the economy might bring and stimuli for growth and diver­si­fi­ca­tion that might result were seen in iso­lated cases. However, the Levada-Center study makes it clear that liberal forces harbour almost no hope for changes under the current gov­ern­ment. Depen­dence on the fossil fuel sector is too great.

Sim­i­larly, neither the oppo­si­tion nor Russia’s current lead­er­ship has envi­sioned what an alter­na­tive Russia might look like. The oppo­si­tion has almost nothing in the way of pos­i­tive images of the future to offer. The images that do exist involve crises and war or a con­tin­u­a­tion along current lines.

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