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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