THE COLD CALCULUS BEHIND PUTIN'S LUKEWARM EMBRACE OF CLIMATE PACT

From center left, Sergei Donskoi, Russia's natural resources minister, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin visit an environmental cleanup site on Alexandra Land Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago in Russia in 2017. Putin does not agree with the scientific consensus on the primary cause of planetary heating, but he still plans to sign the landmark Paris climate accord.

For most of his two decades in power, Vladimir Putin has challenged the assertion, now held by the vast majority of climate scientists, that global warming is due almost exclusively to human activity.

As late as 2017, long after agreeing in principle to the Paris pact on curbing carbon emissions, the president of Russia was asserting that the current warming trend actually started before the 1930s, when "anthropological factors" were negligible.

"The issue is not stopping it because that's impossible, since it could be tied to some global cycles on Earth or of planetary significance," Putin said after touring a military outpost in the Arctic, where melting ice continues to open up lucrative new shipping routes. "The issue is to somehow adapt to it."

Fast-forward 27 months and Putin, who presides over the world's fourth-largest emitter, is trying to position himself as a leader of the same transnational regulatory movement that his first economic adviser compared to fascism. After three and half years of foot-dragging, Putin has finally decided to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement - and the reasons have less to do with the fate of the planet than with geopolitics and gross domestic product.

What's more, Putin wants to neutralize domestic critics by ratifying the landmark accord via government order instead of through a vote in parliament as originally planned, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Bypassing the State Duma would prevent lawmakers allied with opponents of the Paris process, including energy and metals barons, from challenging the Kremlin's position in public hearings, they said. That means Putin wants to stop members of the lower house from voicing the same kinds of arguments against the need for collective action that he himself has frequently expounded.

Officials involved in discussions inside the Kremlin point to a myriad of factors behind the evolution of Putin's position on greenhouse gases over the past two years. These include intense personal lobbying by European leaders, particularly from Germany, France and Scandinavian countries, and a deeper understanding of the costs of doing nothing.

They said Putin's policy pivot was driven by the cold calculus of economics and realpolitik rather than any real conviction in the efficacy of further crimping personal and corporate behavior. In fact, when asked if embracing the Paris pact means Putin now agrees with the scientific consensus on the primary cause of planetary heating, his spokesman was unusually blunt:

"No," Dmitry Peskov said by text message.

That gives Putin another point of commonality with Donald Trump, his U.S. counterpart. Trump, who's called global warming a hoax, was the first head of state of a full Paris Agreement member to announce intentions to withdraw, arguing that it's bad for business. Putin defended Trump's decision in 2017, saying then that it was nothing to "worry" about.

But while Trump may think the U.S. can afford to go it alone on climate change, Putin knows that Russia, which is already somewhat isolated financially as a result of Western sanctions, cannot.

Governments everywhere are raising environmental standards to promote green trade and it won't be long before Russian exports are taxed out of markets if it doesn't follow suit, according to the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or RSPP, the country's biggest lobby group. The RSPP dropped its opposition to the Paris pact in January, under pressure from the Kremlin.

"The absence of national obligations and state regulation of activities to combat climate change may serve as a pretext for imposing economic restrictions on Russian companies," RSPP chief Alexander Shokhin, a former deputy premier who also sits on the supreme council of Putin's United Russia party, said in an open letter at the time.

Putin, far from being a global-warming denier, has been using recent research by his own scientists to make the case that the world's largest country is actually also the largest victim of the phenomenon, whatever the cause.

Putin summarized his new line of thinking in a major speech at an international conference on industrialization this summer in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, the range that separates Europe and Asia. At the time, large swathes of Russia, which has about 17% of all livable land, were being ravaged by an unusual series of deadly and massive fires and floods.

With temperatures in Russia rising 2.5 times the global average, Putin said, the government must do whatever it can to mitigate the impact, including curbing the country's carbon footprint. That's not a popular idea among business owners in Russia's most pollutive region, so Putin caged his call to action inside criticisms of unidentified Western leaders who he said continue to cynically distort the issue for political and economic gain.

"The degradation of nature and the climate continues and is increasingly stronger manifested in droughts, crop failures and natural calamities," the Russian leader said. "Regrettably, instead of discussing the gist of the climatic and environmental agenda, we often see overt populism, false allegations and, I dare say, obscurantism."

Putin, 67, used to joke about rising temperatures being good for minks and sables, but he's not laughing anymore.

The problems associated with thawing permafrost alone are daunting. More than two-thirds of Russia, an area bigger than the U.S., is covered by permanently frozen ground. At current rates, the Russian Academy of Sciences expects this region to shrink by 25% by 2080, threatening $250 billion worth of apartment blocks, roads, railways, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Keeping ground frozen is already amini-industry in Arctic cities like Norilsk, home to Russia's most valuable mining company. And retreating glaciers on Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago between the Barents and Kara seas, are releasing fallout from dozens of nuclear tests that the Soviets conducted on and above the islands, including the 1961 Tsar Bomba, the most destructive device ever exploded.

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