Russia is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, and dozens of its researchers have contributed to the consensus reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which describe the causes and consequences of global warming. This month, the lower house of the Russian parliament adopted the country’s first climate proposal and set the course for carbon neutrality through emission reductions and deforestation limits. Just last week, President Vladimir Putin spoke at St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that Russia is concerned about climate change, and any claim that it is not, is “nonsense, a myth and sometimes outright distortion.”
But not everyone in Putin’s government appears to have received the message. Last month in a document reviewed by ScienceInsider, the country’s foreign ministry recommended funding studies that allowed Russia to promote “alternative” views on climate change that “would not necessarily suggest abandoning fossil fuels and limiting industrial growth.”
The document, signed on May 21 by the head of the ministry’s Department of International Organizations, also says that the United Nations and the IPCC “have aggressively forced consensus on the causes of climate change. … For a long time, a ‘scientific basis for climate change’ has been formed, which is not always favorable to Russia. And it argues that “isolated alternative research is not further developed or discussed by the international scientific community (it is fundamentally blocked or silent).”
Climate scientists are upset by the ministry’s recommendations, which were sent to the Ministry of Economic Development, which oversees domestic climate policy, for “potential consideration.” It is “very unfortunate that such a document was published in a country that looks back on an enormous scientific tradition,” said Thomas Stocker, a climate researcher at the University of Bern and former co-chair of an IPCC working group. “It’s almost like betraying your rich research heritage.”
Anna Romanovskaya, head of the Yuri Israel Institute of Global Climate and Ecology, says the recommendations reveal a deep lack of understanding of how climate research works. They also represent an attack on the integrity of climate scientists, she says. “This slander must stop, and the work of scientists, including climate scientists, must be protected from political pressure.”
The Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Organizations, which is responsible for Russia’s participation in the UN and its climate negotiations, did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first time that conflicting views on climate science have reached high levels in Russia. In 2019, several Russian IPCC writers, including Romanovskaya, wrote to the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences complaining that the Academy had recommended ratification of the Paris Agreement due to “lack of consensus” on the causes of global warming and that it had done so without to have consulted any of the researchers. Russia eventually joined the agreement, and the academy has since modernized its internal climate council.
Alexander Chernokulsky, an atmospheric physicist and academic secretary of the new academy council, said the ministry’s recommendations reminded him of “tobacco companies and their attempts to disrupt science and saw doubts about stopping regulation.” However, he notes that other parts of the document call for general climate policies. These internal contradictions, he says, may be due to “confusion and ambiguity rather than evil.”
Following an introduction on climate science, the document calls for policies such as better forest management, energy efficiency and even a potential carbon tax on imports. Marianna Poberezhskaya, who studies Russian climate policy at Nottingham Trent University, calls foreign policy a “mixed bag” and believes it reasonably reflects popular attitudes towards climate change in Russia. “Climate skepticism is repeated, but climate discussions in Russia are not monolithic,” she said.
But Poberezhskaya is disappointed that a high-level ministry will promote such a mixed message. “It is a shame,” she says, “that it still mentions such a conspiracy-driven denialist rhetoric, which is absolutely unnecessary and even detrimental to advances in Russian climate science, politics and public attitudes.”
Olga Dobrovidova is a science writer at Skoltech, a private university in Moscow that is not involved in climate research.