Page last updated at 04:38 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Climate change summit leaves sceptical Russia cold

Squirrel in Moscow

By Katia Moskvitch

As President Dmitry Medvedev prepares to join talks to save the planet in Copenhagen, only a minority of Russians will be worrying much about the outcome.

Climate change and the environment are not big issues for most Russians - and most of the time the government seems equally unconcerned.

"Global warming, the Kyoto Protocol, cutting emissions, nuclear waste, incinerators - it might be a topic of discussion among Moscow's business elite, but the masses are nowhere near these issues. No-one's talking about them," said former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of the current Russian government.

"There is one popular opinion, though - that Russia is a cold country and warming it up slightly wouldn't do any harm."

Russia has pledged to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are at least 25% below 1990 levels.

Graphic showing percentages regarding climate change as "very serious" in selected countries

But since they are currently 34% below 1990 levels - thanks to an economic slump that coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union - the economy can continue to grow for some time before it becomes necessary to go green.

A BBC poll conducted this summer suggests that Russia is far less concerned about climate change than other European countries. Only 46% of 1,008 respondents in Russia said it was a "very serious" problem, and only 54% favoured government investment to address climate change if it might hurt the economy - figures closer to those for the US or India than for Western Europe.

Warming 'myth'

Officially, the Kremlin has recognised that human activity has contributed to climate change. But this is at odds with the message put out by state television, which has screened documentaries on the "myth" of global warming.

Alexey Yablokov in 1995
We only think about drilling for more and more oil and selling it to the West - who's thinking about ecology?
Professor Alexey Yablokov

One of Russia's leading ecologists, Professor Alexey Yablokov, an adviser to the Russian Academy of Sciences and a former adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, puts some of the blame at the door of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"Putin did say that climate change was good for Russia. He might have been half-joking, but then he was being half-serious, too," he says.

"And Russian people think the same thing - after all, that's what they hear on state television. Our population has been brainwashed and 99% of it only listens to the TV channels controlled by the Kremlin."

He believes that the government's position stems from Russia's choice to be "the West's resources appendage", which he says is "by definition, anti-ecological".

"That's our ideology, that's why we only think about drilling for more and more oil and selling it to the West. Who's thinking about ecology? Who cares that 10% of oil will spill or leak out while being transported to the West? No-one does... That's not important, what's important is getting the money, building a new house and buying new cars."

Social priorities

There was a time, in the years immediately after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, when environmental issues were high up on Russians' list of concerns.

They have now slipped a long way down - "to 12th or 15th place" according to Professor Yablokov.

Kremlin tower
The impact of radioactive waste in Siberia may mean little in Moscow

Ordinary people worry most about low salaries and ever-rising prices, unemployment, corruption, crime and terrorism.

They don't lose sleep over the fact that the country is accepting trainloads of French nuclear waste, and that unsorted domestic and commercial waste is being burned in incinerators around the country without regard for the toxic gases released.

Twenty-five-year-old Moscow businessman Viktor Sheremetyev, speaks for many Russians when he says he has "never really thought about" global warming or the environment.

"I don't care about these problems at all," he told me.

"There are many other more important things, starting with social issues, in particular living standards, my salary and social benefits. In Russia, I can't be sure of my tomorrow - the government won't allow me to feel secure about it. So I'm trying to survive the best I can."

Alexey Gorelov, a businessman from Armavir, meanwhile, said he was doubtful about the whole idea of man-made global warming.

"I think that 90% of efforts around global warming and emissions' cut have a different goal - getting more taxes from the entire world population.

"That tiny amount of emissions produced by human activity cannot even be compared to the global effects of the movement of the sun, planets, Earth's orbit shifts and fluctuations of the axis of the Earth."

Blue flames

The fact that so few regard environmental protection as a priority is likely to have something to do with a lack of hard-hitting warnings from the government.

Russian supermarket
Climate change seems remote from everyday life for many Russians

But there may also be other factors involved, such as the lack of political discussion - because of the absence of any real political opposition - and the non-existence of a powerful middle class that would not only worry about its children's health but also be ready to stand up and do something about it.

Some Russians say that because the country is so big, it is difficult for someone living in Moscow or Saint Petersburg to imagine the negative impact on the environment of, say, radioactive waste stored in distant Siberia.

Others point to the fact that Russians do not feel particularly empowered as individuals. They believe it is practically impossible to change anything, so why even bother?

Last summer, one of the biggest waste dumps in Europe, not far from Dzerzhinsk, Russia's former "chemical capital" where chemical weapons were produced, finally stopped burning - it had been burning on and off for the past several years. Dangerous chemicals would burn with stunning blue flames.

Sometimes the waste would set itself alight because of chemical processes as the substances decomposed. Occasionally the local authorities would burn the waste down to clean the area for more refuse to arrive.

These practices continue across the country, toxic fumes poisoning the population. But despite the ecological disaster, life in Russia goes on - be it only for an average of 59 years for men and slightly more, but still much less than in the West, for women.

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