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Putin Joins the Climate Change Deniers

Were his comments just off-the-cuff remarks, or a reflection of a deeper policy change?

by Elizabeth Plantan and Peter Rutland 18 April 2017

In a reversal of previous policy, in late March Vladimir Putin denied that human-induced climate change is taking place. This development was lost in the stream of other news from Russia – the anti-corruption protests, the St. Petersburg bombing, the U.S. airstrike on Syria, and daily updates in the Russian election hacking scandal – but its global implications are arguably just as important.


Russia is the fourth-largest carbon emitter in the world. The battle to restrain climate change will clearly not succeed unless the country is a willing and active participant. Given the stance of the Trump administration on this topic, Putin’s position is more grim news for the future of the planet.


Putin’s comments were made at a 30 March forum on the future of the Arctic that took place in Arkhangelsk, on the White Sea, a southern inlet of the Barents Sea. The presidents of Finland and Iceland, as well as diplomats from other countries, also attended the event.


The day before the forum, Putin had visited glaciers on the Franz Josef Land archipelago, 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) north of Arkhangelsk, to inspect an environmental cleanup of Soviet-era military waste in the region. “In one of its layers, we saw soot sediments – you will see it, too, if you go there,” he said at the forum. “This sediment is thousands of years old, it was deposited at a time when there were no plants emitting soot into the atmosphere. I would like to tell you that several Etna eruptions do more damage than humankind’s current emissions.”


Putin said that an “essential factor that bolsters optimism on our part is climate change … climate change provides more favorable conditions for economic activity in this region.” He later added: “I agree with those who believe that the question is not how to prevent it, because this is impossible. This may have to do with some global cycles on earth or even some planetary cycles.”


CNBC’s Gregg Cutmore, the panel moderator, pointed out that Putin seemed to be agreeing with Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Putin said that those “who are not in agreement with opponents are not so silly after all” and “I would not dramatize things, and I wouldn’t use these global factors for the domestic American political struggle.”


Putin’s skeptical remarks about climate change were off-the-cuff comments during the Q&A.


In contrast, Putin’s prepared speech to the forum stressed the economic benefits that will come to Russia from opening the Arctic Ocean for economic development, from oil and gas deposits to the Northern Sea Route to carry freight to Asia. He did not directly mention climate change at all.


He may have felt the need to rebut the warnings of the Finnish and Icelandic presidents. The former had stressed the danger posed by climate change and the importance of collective action to slow it down, and the latter talked about oceanic pollution and the depletion of fish stocks.


Whatever Putin’s motives, the exchange seems to have revealed his true feelings on the issue.


For decades, Russia has, in fact, prioritized economic development over action to mitigate its impact on the climate. But at least in the past, Russia paid lip service to the challenge of global warming, and did sign on to the 1997 Kyoto Accord and 2015 Paris Agreement. In Paris, Putin had said that “Climate change has become one of the gravest challenges humanity is facing. …. Russia has been contributing actively to addressing global warming. Our country is taking the lead.” Admittedly, back in 2003, Putin had joked that Russians would “spend less on fur coats,” and that “specialists say our grain production will increase, and thank God for that.”


Arguably, Russia has never seriously tried to reduce carbon emissions. Due to the collapse of heavy industry in the 1990s, even today Russian emissions are 16 percent below the 1990 level, which is the target that Moscow adopted under the Kyoto and Paris accords. Russia accounts for 7.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the oil and gas sector, vital to government revenue and economic growth, accounts for 45 percent of Russian emissions. That lobby drowns out the few business voices who see advantages for Russia in curbing carbon emissions.


It remains to be seen if Putin was speaking out of turn, and will return to a responsible stance in the international coalition to combat climate change. Chinese President Xi Jingping, who is poised to become a global leader on this issue, will no doubt be watching closely to see whether Moscow lines up with Beijing or with Washington.

Elizabeth Plantan
is a doctoral student at Cornell University focusing on environmental politics in Russia and China. Peter Rutland (pictured) 
is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.
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