Comment: Why Russia’s climate change policy is like a cargo cult

What is Russia’s real position on climate change? It says it will not take part in a ‘useless’ Kyoto Protocol extension period (KP2), despite recently appearing to support it. It boasts oil and gas reserves and a President who holds climate sceptic views. And yet you can bet Russia will call for a global deal, more action and release a ‘proposal for action’ come COP18 in Doha. So who, and what should we believe?

By Olga Dobrovidova

I bet it feels like Russia’s been deliberately messing with your heads recently.

First, they stand up and say no to the KP second commitment period because it’s useless. They do that in Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban and everywhere in between. Then, a Kommersant cover story, published two months before COP18 and the deadline on that decision, quotes unnamed ministry sources as saying yes.

Then, a deputy prime minister and a climate change envoy say no. And, to top it all, it takes the foreign affairs ministry a week to completely dismiss all speculations and – square one – say it’s useless.

Now, I could say all this mess means absolutely nothing, and we are in fact exactly where we were in terms of the decision. I could also say that it is a somewhat desperate attempt to nudge Russia to an outcome that many actually want to see. I could say that there is a fierce fight going on deep in the dark waters of Russian climate policy, and what you’re seeing is ripples on the surface.

But the thing is, none of that is true – which is why I also suggest you all line up your experts on Russia, because the fun’s just beginning.

In the past President Vladmir Putin has dismissed climate change as "the earth breathing"

You see, many complain that Russian climate policy is a ‘black box’ filled with unknowns. Two words are certainly enough to describe it, but I’d choose two different words. To me, a couple dozen people and their interactions collectively defined as Russian climate policy are, in fact, a phenomenon that’s been known since late 1880s – a cargo cult.

In a cargo cult, any outcome is by definition external: airplanes with goods come or don’t come regardless of what cult members do and how long the ritual landing strip is. Or, in climate policy terms, – discuss all you want, as the real decision makers are as far from the debate as Europe is from New Guinea.

And even if the plane actually arrives and Russia takes a U-turn on the Kyoto second commitment period, the suggestion that this is a result of some sort of policy debate is a bit weird.

I hope I’ve not offended many great experts on the science and economics of climate change (hey guys!), who spend their time and energy on endless meetings trying to talk some sense into the government. But my guess is those experts would be the first to admit that they are in essence taking part in a ceremony. I mean, someone here seems to genuinely believe that if you appoint a climate change envoy (even a really good one) and produce a 19-page doctrine with a bunch of fancy words, climate policy will just kinda happen.

I often feel that the UN climate process might be the only reason Russia actually makes any decisions on the issue. Up until very recently, when some businesses started to feel uneasy about “carbon protectionism”, it looked as if climate policy is just this strange thing we need plainly because once upon a time Russia ratified the Convention and now it is impolite to just sit on our hands.


That, actually, might explain why the country’s good at reacting to proposals and ideas in the talks, but doesn’t really suggest anything new. Case in point, Russia did not like any tabled proposals on AAU surplus, a matter very dear to us, but it has not so far produced its own suggestion.

Look at where we are today, three or four years into claiming we want to skip the second commitment period but keep the AAU reserve and joint implementation – anyone heard from Russia on how to do that? And I don’t count repeatedly saying that it should be done because it should be done as a solid idea, sorry.

Silent debate

And there’s absolutely no fight behind the curtains, simply because a fight requires multiple sides. There are preaching sessions where some people try to convince other people to start giving a damn. I honestly hope they’ll succeed, by the way, because I really like my job as a climate reporter.

And they can succeed – if a certain amount of bosses who report to their bosses reporting to more bosses etc. say yes, then the reality might change too, regardless of how peculiar our public stance will become.

I’ve never had any issues with false balance in my stories, because, again, experts in Russia are either not against KP or do not care. Sure, there is climate change skepticism in Russia, a lot of it, actually, but as we all know, climate policy is not about science, it’s about money.

And the few skeptics publicly trashing Kyoto Protocol for economic reasons tend to talk about the global conspiracy against Russia and how every Russian citizen will end up having to buy emissions rights in order to drive to their dacha. I could quote them, I guess, but, frankly, that’s a bit too Area 51 for me.

There’s a popular Russian joke about a scientist and a young girl talking about the likelihood of meeting a dinosaur in the street. The scientist concludes that it’s extremely unlikely, whereas the girl says, “well, it’s 50/50: either I will or I won’t”. So, fellas, when you ask me about Russia and the second commitment period – right now it’s 50/50.

Olga Dobrovidova is special reporter for climate change and head of the Environment and Energy news desk for the leading Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

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