Russian Political Forces Meet Climate Change

Shortly after assuming office, President Joe Biden signed a raft of ambitious executive orders to mitigate the damage caused by climate change and appointed veteran politician John Kerry to a new cabinet-level position as climate envoy, bringing the climate issue to the very forefront of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Just prior, the European Union announced that it would consider imposing a carbon border adjustment mechanism (usually dubbed as a "carbon border tax") that, if passed, would present Russian exporters with elevated challenges in accessing the EU market. It is clear that the climate agenda has become a major focal point of international politics, with great consequences for Russia. Less clear is how the issue fits into Russia’s domestic political landscape. How do political parties and politicians in Russia frame climate change? And is there a political demand for tackling the changing climate among the Russian public?

No Party for Climate Change

Though it is hard to believe, political parties in Russia once competed fiercely for the hearts and souls of the public. In the 1990s, scores of political organizations participated in local and national elections, outlined competing platforms in a free and more diverse media, and fielded a variety of legislative and executive platforms. Among them, ecological parties and movements raised their concerns over the state of the environment in Russia. Though no organization was ever able to institute a "green" agenda, parties such as Yabloko (“Apple”) and Kedr (“Cedar”) promoted stronger environmental legislation and sought a leading role for Russia in international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol.

The political landscape changed dramatically in the early 2000s, beginning with Yabloko’s departure from the State Duma—Russia’s lower chamber of parliament—in 2003 and a subsequent tightening of civic space. Different strands of environmentalists in Russia attempted to build their own parties but, struggling to gain political representation, joined alliances with other actors. For example, in 2002, Kedr was transformed into an ecological party, The Greens, which later sought to ally with the pro-government party, A Just Russia, but eventually joined hands with the Pobeda (“Victory”) coalition in December 2020. Soyuz zelyonykh Rossii (“Union of Russian Greens”), founded by Greenpeace veteran Aleksei Yablokov in 2005, merged with Yabloko two years later. More recently, in December 2019, a group of eco-activists led by Ruslan Khvostov founded Green Alternative, a political party that supports Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future movement.

None of these parties have been successful electorally. The Greens has some council members in cities like Kransnoyarsk which suffer from environmental degradation (Kransnoyarsk is the home of Nornickel and several other industrial giants). In September 2020 regional elections, Green Alternative received two legislative mandates in the Chelyabinsk region and Komi republic—regions also marred by environmental problems. Yabloko has large factions and active members in large metropolitan areas like St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Yekaterinburg, but its national electoral rating hovers at 1–2 percent.

Perhaps more surprising, however, is just how little these parties have to say about the primary environmental challenge of our time: climate change. Russian political platforms are generally vague and unspecific. For example, The Greens mentions active participation in "solving global environmental problems" among the priorities in its program without any particular references to the Paris Agreement or other international environmental accords. Yabloko, in its 2016 program, situates climate change within the context of environmental protection and energy efficiency, advocating for more climate-friendly policies—a transition to renewable and clean energy sources (though opposing the construction of new nuclear plants), the reduction of fossil fuel consumption, and new standards of efficiency in energy generation and consumption—but with few references to international agreements or green policy proposals. Similarly, Green Alternative pledges to fight global warming and to curb greenhouse gasses emission as a strategic goal but does not specify by what means.

More mainstream political parties have largely ignored climate change. Since 2007, four parties occupy seats in the State Duma: the ruling United Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR), and Just Russia. Jointly, they exercise enormous regulatory power, producing nationwide legislation and ratifying international agreements. Their programmatic statements make little or no mention of climate change. Some party leaders appear to deny that climate change is taking place. LDPR's leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example, characterized Greta Thunberg and other eco-activists as "fanatics who endanger humanity," while former A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov is known to read lectures about “the total fraud” of climate change, "a trap for Russia [set by the West]" and has lobbied the Russian president against joining international agreements. Though they tout the need to strengthen "ecological security" or develop "energy efficient technologies," the KPRF and United Russia platforms are silent on issues like greenhouse gas emissions, renewables, and climate change adaptation. United Russia members of parliament even publicly challenged party leader and former president Dmitry Medvedev for signing the Paris agreement in September 2019. A Just Russia's program tangentially tackles climate change among other "global threats" such as international terrorism, pandemics, and demographic challenges. In short, to paraphrase former United Russia leader and Duma's speaker Boris Gryzlov: “The Russian parliament is no place for [climate] discussions.”

Climate Change and Russian Public Opinion

Even if parties were to embrace a climate agenda, however, it would hardly be their best electoral pitch. In part, this is because what few legislative efforts to address climate change do exist are hampered by industry lobbying and inattention to climate issues at the highest level of the Russian government. President Putin does not consider the climate agenda other than as a threat to Russia’s national security and economy, and the subordination of other branches of power to the chief executive precludes other actors from developing their own agenda.

But an even larger issue is ambiguous public interest in a climate agenda (after all, even in authoritarian Russia, parties are elected on the people's mandate). On the one hand, the Russian public seems to care more than its political leadership: environmental degradation is consistently ranked among the top 10 public concerns, while Russians rank climate change as the fourth most dangerous global threat to humanity (see Figure 1). Moreover, in contrast to the Russian government’s many climate sceptics, 95 percent of Russians believe that "we are experiencing climate change" and 64 percent that it is caused by human activity, according to Obs'COP 2020 survey. But a more recent survey from Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation found that out of the 67 percent of respondents who believed global warming was occurring, only 28 percent agreed that it was the result of human activities, while an additional 27 percent believed it resulted from a combination of human activities and natural processes.

Though it is dated, the Russian component of a 2016 European Social Survey (ESS) offers some additional insight. According to the survey, an overwhelming majority of Russians (83.5 percent) believed that the climate is "definitely" or "probably" changing. Excluding those who resolutely stated that the climate does not change, 18 percent of the remaining sample thought about the issue "a lot" and "a great deal”; 44 percent thought about the climate "some" of the time; and 26 percent and 15 percent picked "very little" and "not at all" respectively. While 34 percent regard the human impact as the single or main cause of climate change, 14 percent believe nature is the cause, and 45 percent believe that climate change occurs "about equally by natural processes and human activity." Nineteen percent of those surveyed were "extremely" and "very" worried about climate change versus 40 percent who were "not very" and "not at all" worried, with 46 percent in the middle ("somewhat worried"). 

Contrary to common narratives that younger generations are more concerned with climate change, the ESS data revealed that about half of "worried" respondents were age 50+, while the 18–24 and 25–35 age cohorts constitute a sizeable plurality among those "not very worried" (38 percent) and "not at all worried" (44 percent) regarding climate change (Figure 2). On other questions, the differences between groups were negligible: younger respondents were slightly more likely to admit it was a personal responsibility to fight climate change.

And finally, Russians were against tough measures to fight climate change: 42 percent are against increasing taxation on the fossil fuel industry, with 25 percent in favor, and 32 percent undecided. However, a majority (61 percent) support investments into renewables, while a plurality (43 percent) favor a ban on the sale of home appliances “with the least energy efficiency.”

Without rigorous statistical analysis it is difficult to determine if there is a coherent constituency of Russians who might be willing to push for a clear climate agenda politically. Rough regressions conducted by the author indicate that Russian women are more concerned with climate change than men, residents of small-sized cities are likely to be more concerned than urbanites and villagers, and citizens who vote regularly are more concerned than non-voters. Additionally, the level of concern increases with years of education. The 50–65 age cohort is the most worried, while income or political preferences did not appear to be a factor in attitudes toward climate change. However, the larger takeaway from the 2016 survey is that for a majority of Russians, the climate agenda is not salient and does not require urgent political measures. 

The Political Future of the Climate Agenda in Russia

Does this mean that climate change is politically irrelevant in Russia? Obviously, the conditions necessary for a climate agenda to become salient include both demand for stronger climate policies on behalf of voters and the supply of these policies by political parties and leaders. The survey analysis above demonstrates Russian citizens are not clamoring for a change in climate policies. Meanwhile, the latter condition is unlikely to emerge in the near future as established players will follow President Putin’s lead, even if minor parties consider elevating the climate agenda within their political platforms.

But this might be changing as voters show growing concern over the dangers of a changing climate. Over the last decade, more Russians have said they believe that actions should be taken to prevent environmental degradation. In the Obs'COP 2020 poll, 82 percent of those surveyed believe government is primarily responsible for addressing climate change; 44 percent believe that the public authorities have not done enough to account for the consequences of climate change; and 45 percent are ready to vote for parties committed to the issue (43 percent are not). In addition, according to a recent VTsIOM poll, 16–17 percent of Russians believe that environmental protests in their region are possible and 35 percent are ready to take part in such actions. To put this into perspective: Russians’ readiness to participate in collective action over economic grievances averages 20–24 percent, according to Levada Center data.

The task facing climate activists in Russia is to connect the climate agenda to well-documented concern over local environmental problems in Russia. This could activate hitherto dormant political forces. Of course, drawing this link is no simple task, especially when the government is able to control the public narrative and key political players downplay or suppress the issue. But as the above opinion poll data makes clear, Russians are aware of the perils of rising planetary temperature—and are open to political action. This is backed up by recent events, notably the 2018 protests over waste management practices in Shies.

Paradoxically, what Russians lack is not an awareness of environmental challenges or the willingness to act, but a political force that presents an environmental agenda as a response to wider socioeconomic and political concerns. Clearly, there is also national pride and international prestige in successfully managing climate impacts and energy transition. But in the end, climate policy is about an individuals’ right to a healthy and stable environment, and Russians increasingly feel that this right is being violated. Like everyone, they want a livable future for their children. The reluctance of Russia’s leaders to recognize and embrace the challenge may cost them approval.

Andrei Semenov is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Andrei Semenov

Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program