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Russia frozen on climate change

Gurkov Andrey / DW No Comments Share:

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.

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

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 two-and-a-half 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?

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

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 avert 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 considered less a negative environmental development than evidence the country is being “sold off” to China.

Internet users and the Russian media tend to concentrate on exceedingly narrow details rather looking at the big picture. It seems clear that one thinks in local rather than global terms.

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 Vladimir 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.

Internationally, such as at the recent G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Putin has presented himself as a contrast to the climate-skeptical Trump

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

Climate protect 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 is 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 while vehemently denying that such a thing even exists. DW

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