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Russia frozen on climate change

Gurkov Andrey Kommentarbild App
Andrey Gurkov
July 6, 2019

Vladimir Putin has talked about global warming's toll as Siberia's Irkutsk region struggles to recover from floods. But there's a simple reason why Russia won't get behind climate protection policies, says Andrey Gurkov.

A house sits in flood waters in Irkutsk, Russia
Image: Reuters/A. Golovshchikov

With the devastating flood that has ravished the Irkutsk region in Siberia, Russia is experiencing one of its worst natural catastrophes in decades. More than 20 deaths have already been reported, and more than 33,000 people have been affected.

For most, that means much more than flooded basements or ground floors filled with mud; rather, it's the loss of their very livelihood. Their wooden houses were swept away by floodwaters, their animals perished and their fields were destroyed.

Extreme weather will increase

Researchers at Irkutsk State University say the flood was caused by "anomalous atmospheric processes taking place amid global and regional climate change." They warn that global warming will lead to increasingly frequent periods of drought and heavy rainfall in Siberia.

Gurkov Andrey
DW's Andrey Gurkov

President Vladimir Putin, who visited the region, also points to climate change. At the recent G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, he told leaders that Russian meteorologists have determined that the country is warming at a rate 2 1/2 times faster than the global average.

Will the catastrophe in the Irkutsk region lead to a change in Russia's skeptical stance on climate change? Has the flooding convinced the people of Siberia and Russia that increasingly extreme weather is a consequence of global warming? Will they demand their government take action to protect the environment, as so many young people across Europe have done this year?  

The answer: No — most definitely not!

Seeing the details, missing the bigger picture

For an observer who has followed the German climate debate, it's perplexing to take stock of how news reports and social media discussions in Russia are dealing with the flood.

No one wants to listen to what experts have to say about the links between global warming and the catastrophe in Siberia. People brush off such talk as "stupid," as a "hoax." At most, they are convinced that any talk of connections is simply a lame attempt by local and national government agencies to divert attention away from their own failings and responsibilities.

The discussion generally focuses (with a certain amount of merit) on supposed government failures to prevent and fight the effects of natural catastrophes. For instance, there is much talk of shoddy dam construction.

Conspiracy theories are also making the rounds, such as the claim that water levels at dams were intentionally kept high to allow hydroelectric power plants to provide cheaper energy to an oligarch with factories in the region.

Even the massive deforestation that has taken place in the region is not really considered a negative environmental development. Rather, it's seen as evidence the country is being "sold off" to China.

Internet commenters and the Russian media tend to concentrate on exceedingly narrow details, instead of looking at the big picture. It seems clear that people here think in local, rather than global terms. 

Read more: Saving Russia's precious forests

Putin shakes hands with Trump at the Osaka summit
Internationally, Putin has presented himself as a contrast to the climate-skeptical TrumpImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Walsh

Vladimir Putin: Climate change fighter?

That attitude would make it difficult for Putin to convince the country of the need to pursue active climate policies, even if he wanted to. Moreover, with faith in the president on the wane, advocating such a shift would leave him open to criticism for using climate change as an excuse to divert attention from his own shortcomings.

But Putin has absolutely no desire to initiate an active environmental policy. Although he speaks of the topic at international gatherings, like in Osaka, he does so to score points with his foreign colleagues and set himself apart from climate change denier Donald Trump.

At home, Putin and Kremlin-controlled media outlets rarely, if at all, speak about the subject — and there is a very simple reason for that.

Climate protection costs Russian businesses 

At its core, the fight against climate change means reducing CO2 emissions, and these come mainly from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. But the extraction and export of those fuels are the basis of the Russian economy and the most important source of income for both the "Putin system" and those who profit from it, as well as the state, which uses the revenues to dole out payments to a broad swath of Russian society.

Ultimately, a fundamental shift in climate policy would lead to the dismantling — or to put it in friendlier terms, a reorientation — of the current Russian business model. In recent years, Putin has shied away from far less ambitious reforms. 

And it's clear that the Russian people have no desire to make sacrifices for something as abstract as the concept of the global climate. They seem much more willing to suffer ever greater catastrophes resulting from climate change, all the while vehemently denying that such a thing even exists. 

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