By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Concern over climate changes entered recently into the Russian political vocabulary, but in early January the government announced it had adopted a two years plan due to “reduce the vulnerability” of the life and health Russian population and the economic development economy, but also to “seize opportunities deriving from those changes”. This dual approach reflects the peculiar attitude of Russia towards the challenge of climate change, and its peculiar relation with “nature”.
For Russians, nature means plenty of water, of forests, of animals, of riches in a vast continent containing every climate, from extreme heat in the steppes to zones where summer means a maximum 10 degrees. The vastness provides both protection and isolation.
Officials as well as ordinary Russians speak of “mother nature” with a mixture of romanticism and a feeling of belonging, perceiving it as a challenging partner in the pursuit of their country’s development. But nature has a tempo of its own. It could be a loving mother feeding and protecting her children, but also a marâtre destroying them – in any case, nature is so powerful than one has to take as it comes.
At the same time, the Russians are referring to their vast territory and natural resources as an element justifying their status as a great power, independently of its economic situation. They also did not wait for communism to consider that men have the right and the duty to tame nature to profit of its goods.
In such conditions, when global warming became an international issue, the Russians tended to see it as an opportunity: less cost to heat a large chunk of the territory, opening up of new maritime routes notably the Northern passage, easier access to new sources of natural resources. Officials and population discarded what they considered “hysterical” and “one-sided” discourses in the West.
But the catastrophes of the late summer, with forests on fire in Siberia and dramatic flooding that destroyed entire villages, shocked Russia. More and more environmental issues dragged into the streets people who had never thought of demonstrating. There were local issues and people demonstrated a capacity for mobilisation that does not wait for the Kremlin, or for the opposition parties, to move on.
From local to federal
Up to now, their targets have been local and regional authorities. But they have been relayed by social medias and received a large echo among inhabitants of the big cities where environmental issues can take a more political dimension. Especially because city dwellers have grown away of mother nature as they lost the contact previous generations had with villages. It is now an exception, not the rule, that children spend their school holidays at the dachas of the grand-parents, among forests and animals. New city dwellers see the lack of attention to environment by the political and industrial elites first of all as a political issue, not a socio-cultural one as it was the case under Brejnev or during the perestroika.
This is the context in which, during his end-of-the-year press conference, president Putin admitted the reality of global warming – but stayed quite skeptical of its “alleged” cause. He also kept the line that changes linked to global warming are a source of opportunities for development and promotion of research.
Meanwhile, the Russian minister for environment said that Russia is warming an average 2,5 times quicker than the rest of the world. And on 23 December, the prime minister signed the resolution of the Russian government adopting the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate; he described it as “more flexible than the Kyoto Protocol”.
But the signature was accompanied by a caveat, notably that the agreement and its mechanisms cannot be used for hampering the socio-economic development of the country. It has also to be seen in a geopolitical dimension – that of Russia showing its attachment to an international process that would leave other big powers cold – notably climato-sceptic Donald Trump.