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Horror summer fails to shift Russia climate scepticism

Source:  Copyright 2010, Agence France-Presse
Date:  November 27, 2010
Byline:  Maria Antonova
Original URL: Status DEAD


Russia may have endured its hottest summer on record and battled deadly forest fires, but attitudes on climate change remain dominated by scepticism and even mired in conspiracy theories.

Experts see no major substantial movement in Russia's stance ahead of the latest UN climate conference in Cancun, despite the occasional acknowledgement by President Dmitry Medvedev that the earth is warming.

During the last major climate conference in Copenhagen, Medvedev published Russia's ambitious Climate Doctrine and even appointed a climate adviser a month later.

Russia's own weather agency Rosgidromet said in a weighty 2008 report that daily average temperatures in Russia would rise by four to six degrees Celsius by 2050, and that the change of the past 50 years was most likely man-made.

It concluded that "the dependency of Russia's nature and economy on climatic factors... demand a serious scientific base to government policy on climate change."

But two years later, after summer forest fires that ravaged more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) in Russia and a heatwave believed to have killed thousands, state media are still debating whether climate change is a myth.

In August, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin even wondered aloud if the natural dying out of mammoths around 10,000 BC means that current climate change was also a phenomenon independent of human influence.

"Most scientists in the world now share the view that climate change is human-caused, but in Russia science is very politicized," said Vladimir Chuprov, a climate expert for Greenpeace Russia.

Although Medvedev has indicated his concern at climate change, scepticism in academic circles remains due to Putin's position, since Russian science depends on government funding, Chuprov told AFP.

"The position is: the world can change but we'll survive on our oil wells and potatoes for however long. Oil is always needed, and we have enough of it in our lifetime," he added.

In 2003, Putin amazed scientists when he speculated that a global warming by "two or three degrees" could be a good thing for Russia as its people would no longer need fur coats.

A press conference hosted by the RIA Novosti state news agency ahead of Cancun provided some indication of official attitudes. Called "Climate Change: myth or reality?" it gave a platform to a leading climate sceptic academic.

"Climate is a concept that has existed as long as the Earth exists... several hundred million years ago the temperature was 10-13 degrees higher than now," said Yury Israel, director of the Institute of Global Climate and Environment at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"What is happening now is not some kind of unusual special case," he said, adding that life flourished on Earth at the time of dinosaurs.

Russia's state television -- often a reliable weather vane of government policy direction -- has produced well-funded features on the subject of climate.

"The anti-cyclone came to Russia and stopped. Why?" a low voice narrated in a film shown on state Channel One in October. "Professionals don't know, beyond science people offering shocking theories."

A confused array of doomsday images followed: the planet Earth burst into flames, and chunks of Greenland broke off, flooding major cities on the Atlantic. "Who Caused the Warming?" the film asked point-blank.

Earlier this year, the Russian television answered that question in a 40-minute feature aired on TV5, a popular federal network based in Saint Petersburg.

"The smoke was very strange. Sometimes it thickened, only to disappear the next day," said the film, called "Russia On Fire: Climate as a Weapon". It went on to allege that the heatwave and fires were caused by the US Air Force's HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program).

But though climate scepticism and conspiracy theories abound in Russia, the heatwave and wildfires could bring about a gradual shift in attitudes, experts said.

A year ago, just ahead of the conference in Copenhagen, Channel One aired a feature claiming climate change was a concept dreamed up as part of a political conspiracy.

Now the heatwave has swayed public opinion from total denial, said WWF climate expert Alexei Kokorin.

"Some acknowledgement has occurred, but very slowly," he said. "There is a realization that global warming is after all a bad thing."

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