The Putin Puzzle

How to decipher the Russian president’s mystifying statements on global warming.

UN Photo/Cia Pak
Vladimir Putin addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September
Credit: Photo: UN Photo/Cia Pak

Russian President Vladimir Putin told fellow world leaders on Monday that climate change was “one of the gravest challenges humanity is facing.” In one of its more understated headlines, The New York Times called the speech “a change in tone” for Putin.

Let’s just say this: If Vladimir Putin ever were to stand trial for climate change denial, or at least climate change indifference, there would be plenty of evidence against him. Exhibit A would be his 2003 statement that “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” His assertion that humans may not be responsible for the changing climate, made during a trip to the Arctic in 2010, could be exhibit B.

And as the world’s fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, Russia has offered a weak carbon reduction pledge that makes a powerful exhibit C. While most of the developed world has agreed to draw down its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 or 2030, Russia has promised only to limit growth to approximately 40 percent above current levels. The promise was almost universally regarded as unserious. (NRDC, which publishes onEarth, gave Russia an F for its carbon reduction commitment.)

And yet President Putin wouldn’t be defenseless in his trial for climate change denial. In April, Russia created a framework for monitoring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions, and last month the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment drafted a law allowing regulation of GHGs that’s expected to be adopted early next year. Putin has been putting the necessary pieces in place to reduce his country’s emissions—should he decide to take action.

But what of all that talk about fur coat savings and a CO2-fueled agricultural boom? Or about how a melting Arctic will open up valuable shipping lanes? It could be that Putin is just a tough negotiator.

“Many of those comments were in the context of Kyoto Protocol and World Trade Organization negotiations,” points out Max Gutbrod, a Moscow-based attorney who advises clients on Kyoto-related issues. To understand Putin’s views on climate change requires a broader grasp of the history, politics, and diplomacy of the Russian approach to the issue.

The Kyoto Protocol is a good starting place. The Russian economy collapsed in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, resulting in dramatic, if unintentional, reductions in carbon emissions. Russia believed that the Kyoto Protocol would enable it to sell credits for those plummeting emissions to countries that exceeded their pollution limits under the treaty. It didn’t work out that way. As Gutbrod explains, the financial firm responsible for those transfers failed to complete the transactions, and the price of carbon credits subsequently plummeted, depriving Russia of much-needed income from abroad. The Russian government contributed to the failure by not establishing the appropriate legal structures to regulate and assign carbon pollution to its emitters.

The Kyoto Protocol’s failure spawned a great deal of frustration in the Russian government and among the Russian people, who were already remarkably indifferent to climate change. In a 2013 poll, only 54 percent of Russians said they had heard about climate change, and less than half of those surveyed considered it an important issue.

A full explanation for the public’s inattention is complex, notes Anna Korppoo, a senior research fellow at Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute. The country’s nongovernmental organizations are ineffective at public education, and many Russians prefer to leave scientific issues to scientists. But there is a simpler explanation.

“Life in today’s Russia is hard for many, and as a result the public does not care much about problems beyond their everyday hardships,” says Korppoo. “Further, local environmental problems are considered the ones that should be solved first.”

Political and economic elites in Russia have been similarly unmotivated on climate change issues. Korppoo points out that some industrial groups are so powerful in Russia that they could force the government to water down any climate change regulations that would affect their sector of the economy. But the effects on fossil fuel demand from a potential agreement in Paris, she says, would be over a much longer term and therefore do not concern bigwigs in Russia today.

As a result, there is very little political pressure on President Putin—perhaps none at all—to address climate change. What pressure does exist is external, and it’s limited. The country was understandably furious when the United States failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and doesn’t want to be burned again.

“Russia is looking to the United States, China, and India—those above Russia in emissions,” says journalist Angelina Davydova, who has covered Russian policy for Reuters among many other outlets. It “doesn’t want to be too ambitious while also seeing a lack of ambition from other parties.”

Perhaps Russia’s reticence on climate action is more a result of caution than skepticism and Putin is just keeping his options open. “Russia often implies they might do better if,” says Davydova. “But no one knows what the if represents.”

Nobody can read Putin’s mind, but he appears to be taking an approach to climate that is vastly different from that of other leaders. President Obama wants action on climate change to be a vital part of his presidential legacy. Putin doesn’t feel that way. President Xi wants to create a Chinese century, and he doesn’t want climate change to get in the way. Putin doesn’t view climate change as a primary threat to Russia’s progress.

Given his statements earlier this week, Putin seems to want to sign a climate change agreement, but only one that will benefit Russia. And his view is the only one that matters in Russia. As Anna Korppoo wrote in a 2015 paper on the politics of the issue, “President Putin is the only obvious veto player as regards Russia’s participation in international climate agreements.”

Bringing Putin into the fold will therefore require a very specific kind of argument. Scientists, economists, and diplomats must prove to Putin that, if climate change goes unaddressed, Russia will suffer along with the rest of the world—and he will be blamed for the country’s fate. They have slightly less than two weeks to convince him.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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