Climate Change Communication in Russia
Summary and Keywords
In the Russian case, climate change communication links to critical issues of domestic and foreign policy. Russia is one of the leaders in the global carbon market, but its outdated industrial sector needs modernization based on energy efficient technologies. Russia is an ambitious international player seeking high moral positions in addressing global problems such as climate change, but its growing isolation and authoritarianism strangle free public discussions about climate change on a national scale. This article reviews the development of climate change communication as practice and as a field of academic research in Russia. By outlining the relevant scholarly field, the article splits the discussion into two parts—the realities of communication in climate politics and environmental communication. The section on climate politics touches upon Russia’s climate policy, the development of environmental movement since the 1960s, and the question of indigenous peoples. The environmental communication section highlights historical and more recent roles of environmental journalism, points to a generally low volume of climate change coverage, and raises questions about the potential of alternative media. The article concludes that the Russian field of communication research focusing on climate change is growing, but needs a more systematic approach, international comparisons, and research designs that would include more types of empirical materials.
Reflecting on the extremely hot summer and vast forest fires in Russia, Anthony Giddens (2010) asks in his short essay whether climate change could modernize Russia. This question pertains to a developing transnational policy regime on climate. On one hand, the regime undermines the leading role that Russia plays in the global carbon market (a key factor of domestic economic growth). But, on the other hand, it bears considerable potential for innovative projects in energy efficiency (to modernize the outdated industrial sector).
The question is also rhetorically relevant. A few years ago, the Russian leadership considered the changing climate beneficial—making more natural resources available for extraction in the Arctic region, expanding territories suitable for agriculture, and enabling new shipping routes along the Arctic coast (the Northeast Passage). The benefits of climate change were even included in Russia’s climate doctrine (Climate Doctrine, 2009). Since then, however, the official government position became more careful about such positive effects. Natural science also shows that the negative consequences of climate change, such as droughts and heat waves in the southern regions of Russia, will eventually cancel out the potential increase of agricultural production in the central and northern regions (Dronin & Kirilenko, 2008). Nonetheless, the dilemma seems to be about choosing which modernization approach is better, the one that continues privileging the interests of the large oil and gas industry or the one that offers new opportunities for innovative economic development. Giddens rationalizes this issue by linking climate action rather than inaction to the country’s modernization scenarios:
[I]t is actually in Russia’s national and strategic interests, not contrary to them, to treat climate change with due seriousness. If Russia’s leaders can take this point fully on board, and communicate it successfully to the public, the sense of fatalism in the face of disaster coupled to bureaucratic stasis and corruption that so often inhibit innovation in the country can be challenged
(2010, p. 56).
Thus, the phenomenon of climate change communication in Russia faces two practical issues. First, it requires governmental efforts in formulating the necessary and strategically crucial policy decisions among the political and economic elites. Second, it concerns the forms of effective public justification of particular climate policies and of informing and educating the general population about them. Related to that second issue is the role of social science and particularly media and communication research disciplines in providing timely analysis and understanding of the phenomenon.
A brief description of the national media landscape and its socio-political role helps establish the context in which climate communication occurs. The Russian media system is characterised by the growing role of the state, persistent dominance of central television as a main source of news, and, thus far, relatively unregulated and independent online space. The state directly owns only some news organizations; the majority of the media is controlled indirectly through a small group of loyal oligarchs. After a short period of democratization in the 1990s, Russian media landscape turned into a strategic asset for tightening of the Kremlin authoritarianism. Particularly popular national television channels—the main voices of the state propaganda—have become inaccessible for independent politicians and civil society groups.
Traditionally, the vast territories are best covered by televised broadcasts of a few national TV channels, with the largest audiences reached by Channel One, NTV, and a group of channels that belong to the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK). The print media industry has been declining in terms of readership and advertising profits. A successful national daily would have a circulation of about one hundred thousand copies for quality press (for example, Vedomosti or Kommersant) to one million for tabloid-type press (Moskovsky Komsomolets or Komsomolskaya Pravda), at best targeting less than one percent of the population. Both television and press are frequent recipients of the state subsidies. Internet is the only segment of the media system that remained politically independent and profitable even at times of the global financial crisis in 2009. Although the Internet in Russia for a long time was and still is a marginal (sometimes purposefully marginalized) source of news for the general population, it is believed that the wave of 2011–2012 political protests was inspired and supported by social networking sites and online news media. Since then, the state reacted by imposing a series of Internet laws that have seriously restricted Internet freedoms.
With this general picture in mind, this article aims to review the development of climate change communication as empirical reality and as an academic discipline in Russia. After a short overview of the relevant scholarly field, the review moves from contextually significant domain of climate politics to more empirically grounded findings in the field of environmental communication. In the logic of this article, the section on climate politics covers such themes as Russia’s climate policy, the development of environmental movement, and the question of indigenous peoples. The environmental communication section is divided up into the themes of environmental journalism, climate change coverage, and alternative media.
Overview of the Research Field
Marianna Poberezhskaya (2016, p. 3) maintains that climate change communication in Russia remains largely underresearched. Indeed, Poberezhskaya’s (2016) work came out as the first study that systematically covered a number of key and topical issues of the subject. The study draws on interviews with journalists, members of environmental NGOs, and other climate experts, as well as on content analysis of several daily newspapers and speeches of Russia’s political leadership. A large-scale overview of the research on climate change communication shows that only a few studies deal with Russia (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). Compared to the amount of research on other major greenhouse emitters, such as China, India, and the USA, or key promoters of the global climate dialogue, such as the European Union (EU), there is indeed less scholarly focus on the role that Russia plays in these processes and the ways it communicates its policies to foreign and domestic audiences. Poberezhskaya states, “Russia inherited the ‘Soviet legacy’ of neglecting environmental problems and sacrificing the environment to economic development” (2016, p. 157). Simply put, one of the main findings in the book is that the Russian media follow what the leadership does or says about climate change policies. Such an uncritical attitude downplays the urgency of the problem. But it also has the benefit of not being too alarmist or too contradictory and confusing for the public. This opposite extreme often happens when the media and the journalists work unrestrained and are politically engaged in environmental issues.
The subject of climate change coverage is mostly studied on the basis of traditional mainstream newspapers (Poberezhskaya, 2015, 2016; Tynkkynen, 2010; Wilson Rowe, 2009; Yagodin, 2010), paying significantly less attention to alternative and new forms, such as blogging and micro-blogging (Poberezhskaya, 2014). Several comparative studies include Russia in multinational samples based on print media (Eide & Kunelius, 2012; Eide, Kunelius, & Kumpu, 2010; Painter, 2010; Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013). Comparisons of digital communication networks such as a study by Tegelberg, Yagodin, and Russell (2014) are still rare. The few Russian-language examples and key researchers in the field are: Marina Orlova (2013, 2015) from Togliatti State University; Ekaterina Sharkova (2012) from Saint-Petersburg State University; authors of two university textbooks on environmental journalism, Lyudmila Kohanova (2007) from Lomonosov Moscow State University and Olga Maltseva (2012) from Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. Another exception from the general focus on traditional news media is the study of environmental online portals by Belova and Scherbinina (2014) from South Ural State University in Chelyabinsk. Available in English are the works by Oleg Yanitsky (2009, 2012) from the Institute of Sociology at Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Table 1 summarizes some of the core studies in the field.
Table 1. Key studies focusing on climate change communication in Russia
What textual features define good environmental journalism? Aims to develop quality criteria to evaluate professionalism of media texts.
Semantic and syntactic content analyses
A single news item from a local business newspaper Ponedelnik in the city of Togliatti
The example studied fails to link environmental issues to socio-political and scientific contexts, presents poor analytical value for audience.
What are the factors and how do they influence climate change coverage? Based on the Kyoto Conference (1997), COP15 (2009), and the Russian heat-wave (2010) coverage in the Russian press.
Content analysis; statistical proportion tests
A sample of 220 climate change news in five national newspapers: Komsomolskaya Pravda, Rossiiskaia Gazeta, Izvestiya, Kommersant, Sovetskaya Rossiya
Strong media dependence on the state agenda and policies. Predominance of official sources of information. Low coverage and scarcity of climate change debate.
Discusses how social media differ from traditional media in covering climate change.
Content analysis, following Pearce Holmberg, Hellsten, & Nerlich (2014)
Samples of 592 Russian-language tweets and 62 blog entries (LiveJournal) published during a randomly selected timeframe (21 December 2013 to 21 February 2014)
Most of the social media content copies or links to traditional news media. But social media contain more opinions (including climate skeptics) and represent wider scope of civil society actors.
Studies the role of environmental communication in the development of regional environmental politics in the Arkhagelsk region of Russia.
Comparative historical analysis, content analysis
Official documents and environmental acts of the regional government; media content of local and regional news organizations; experts from interview
Environmental and political communication overlap. Local authorities control the media. Journalists present environmental issues as inevitable results of economic development and not as social problems.
Wilson Rowe (2009)
Aims to reflect on Russian climate change politics and the role of scientists by analyzing media coverage between 2000 and 2007.
Content analysis, frame analysis
A sample of 82 news items from the state-owned daily national newspaper Rossiiskaia Gazeta (2000–2007)
Science experts are important sources of information, but they primarily serve to underpin the government policies that vary with international agenda and domestic economic interests.
Reviews the “dramatic and oscillating” development of Russian environmental debates between 1987 and 2007. Considers changing relationships between science and the public, the role of the media, and the evolution of environmental movement.
Longitudinal field research, historical and typological analysis, frame analysis
Observations, historical documents, materials from the author’s previous studies
Over a 20-year period, scientific discourse and environmental debates evolved into forms that are more accessible for the public. Shifts from larger national agenda to local issues, from instructive to interactive communication.
The Russian scholarly community that focuses on questions of environmental and more specifically climate change communication is small compared to more popular disciplines such as political communication, media entertainment, or public relations. “Climate change communication” as a separate topic is unusual for media scholars working within the Russian academic tradition. The relevant overlapping studies are from the field of environmental communication or environmental journalism. The scarcity of Russian academic publications and papers presented at national conferences reflect on the low overall interest to the subject. As will become clear from this review, studies from the field of political studies and international relations partly compensate for this gap.
On a theoretical level, Arthur Mol (2009) observes Russia’s peculiar historical trajectory that he defines as environmental deinstitutionalization, emphasizing the reverse logic of environmental development. Mol (2009, p. 237) argues that over the last several decades, in most countries, many forms of environmental institutions developed toward a more complex organized structure; it was an almost global trend in the direction of nature protection. However, the character of the development in Russia, notably after 1991, is better described as the deinstitutionalization or degradation of environmental institutions. The previous institutions gradually lost their power or disappeared, but nothing replaced them. This critical position maintains that most of the formally existing institutes in reality neither protect the environment nor participate in the national climate change debate. To be fair, the evidence in Crotty’s (2006) work on environmental organizations (see Environmental Movement section below) challenges this theoretical vision but also leads to a different set of critical questions about the environmental movement in Russia.
In practice, climate change communication is a complex issue consisting of multiple sources of information that researchers have to deal with to draw meaningful conclusions. By analyzing the opinions of Russian experts, scientists, and representatives of the energy industry, along with governmental documents, mainstream media articles, and public speeches of the Russian president, Sharples (2013) establishes that energy security is differently articulated in Russia than in the European Union. For Europe, energy security is positively associated with climate change mitigation due to energy efficiency programs. However, for Russia, the dependence on gas and oil exports reverses the discourse toward a more negative association between energy security and climate change.
Climate change as a policy issue includes questions related to the ways that more general environmental politics is communicated to Russia’s domestic and foreign audiences (Afionis & Chatzopoulos, 2010; Andonova & Alexieva, 2012; Henry & Sundstrom, 2007, 2012; Tynkkynen, 2010). For centuries, Russian philosophical thought has promoted the vision of a special missionary role that the country and its people will have to play in the world. This vision has influenced many spheres of social and political life, including the public attitudes and official policies regarding environmental issues and, more recently, climate change (Tynkkynen, 2010). Drawing on content analysis of newspaper articles that discussed climate policies between 2000 and 2004, Nina Tynkkynen (2010, p. 193) suggests that transnational climate negotiations could benefit from emphasizing Russia’s “great ecological power,” especially when it is tuned to the country’s national–patriotic ideology, global missionary duty, and responsibilities.
Russia’s Climate Policy
In its international climate policy, Russia has taken careful steps before accepting any environmental obligations unless they are merely symbolic. For example, it joined the Kyoto Protocol to “improve its own international image and gain political or economic leverage” (Tynkkynen, 2010, p. 192) under conditions that formally did not imply additional emission cuts. Similarly, Henry and Sundstrom (2007), who did numerous interviews with climate experts and policy-makers, argue:
Russia’s decision to ratify the protocol was not primarily driven by a sense of urgency about climate change prevention, either at the elite or mass level, but by its ability to achieve other desirable benefits from international partners and concern for its international image”
It was thus a matter of public diplomacy.
From the communication point of view, the acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol was preceded by a heated public debate. For example, Russia’s decision to join the protocol was marked and partly slowed down (Henry & Sundstrom, 2007) by the strong opposition of two public figures, the leading Russian climatologist Yuri Izrael and President Putin’s former economic advisor Andrei Illarionov. Izrael was critical about the role of anthropogenic factors in climate change. Illarionov envisaged that the economic growth could be hampered by the protocol obligations faster than expected.
Russia’s domestic debate about the Kyoto Protocol was indirectly reinforced by the U.S. decision to exit the negotiations in 2001. Without the U.S. participation, Russia’s role in the agreement’s overall feasibility significantly increased, lending the country “an unprecedented position of influence and power, in effect giving President Putin a veto power over the Protocol” (Afionis & Chatzopoulos, 2010, p. 46). In such circumstances, the protocol would not have been possible, at least not as an international law, if Russia had decided not to join it. However, Russia’s decision was not quick. The world waited for three years, while Russia slowly moved toward ratification at the end of 2004. Suddenly, the perceived importance of Russia in the UN negotiations soared from an average player to one of the leading participants, yet Russia did not capitalize on that transformation. On the contrary, following Putin’s decision to ratify the protocol, Russia’s interest in the negotiations dissipated, especially visible in the light of the gradually emerging alliance between China and the Group of 77 (G77) (Afionis & Chatzopoulos, 2010, p. 56). For example, Afionis and Chatzopoulos (2010) note Russia’s loss of interest in the development of its climate change policy, which was not included in the agenda of the Group of Eight (G8) Summit in St. Petersburg in 2006.
In a later study of government documents and official statements (public and in personal interviews) by policymakers, Henry and Sundstrom (2012, p. 1298) argue that the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol did not stimulate the development of Russia’s climate policy. The scholars hint that in contrast to democratic countries, where public opinion and various interest groups influence climate policy, in nondemocratic contexts, such as Russia, policy development is possible when it fits the narrow interests of the political elite. Therefore, with decreasing international pressure and reputational concerns, the post-Kyoto climate change policy in Russia mostly followed the domestic discourse of economic modernization, at least to the point when it was still relevant.
Despite their minor civic role, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supported the Kyoto Protocol by working in close contact with government officials. Russian representatives of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace, along with such organizations as the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, Eco-Accord, and the Russian Regional Environmental Center, together played a crucial role in mediating their arguments in favor of the protocol, which were presented to the policymakers.
The NGOs were active in public, as well as in formal contacts with the authorities and in supporting research projects and preparing expert reports. For example, Henry and Sundstrom (2007, p. 52) refer to Aleksei Kokorin, who claimed that in addition to many expert interviews with radio and television journalists, the WWF members published over a hundred of their own articles in support of the Kyoto Protocol. According to Kokorin, the WWF representatives also closely cooperated with government ministries, explaining the protocol’s legal and environmental aspects. Their Greenpeace colleagues launched a website called ‘Kyoto, yes!’ to publish user-generated content from various supporters.
A more recent change in Russia’s position in the international negotiations began with the official recognition of the anthropogenic nature of climatic changes. This awareness became visible by the time of the Conference of the Parties 15 (COP15) in Copenhagen in 2009, which created the grounds for more active global cooperation and economic incentives to handle national levels of emissions. During this period, studies based on interviews with official delegations and policy documents reported the rhetorical shift in Russia’s negotiation strategy that utilized the country’s image as a responsible global power (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012). However, the theme of climate change remained poorly presented on the domestic public agenda, with relatively low media coverage, which enabled a rather flexible position for Russian negotiators (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012, p. 626). The new negotiation strategy differed from the previous, mostly obstructionist position of Russia. Since 2009, it started to rely on the interplay between international and domestic politics, on one hand, and coalition building, on the other hand. Given such a strategy, Russia’s constructive and potentially positive role is now (and will be in the future) dependent on the positions of other major players, notably the US, China, and the so-called Umbrella Group (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012). The Russian political leadership will also continue to play a role since the factors of economic development will limit what the country may accept as a goal for emission cuts.
The idea of modernization, so prominent at times when Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin for one presidential term (2008–2012), influenced the agenda of climate policy. This would explain why Medvedev strategically revived Russia’s role in international climate negotiations. Henry and Sundstrom (2012) show how this approach stimulated Russia’s internal activities and institutional commitments through a combination of international and domestic agenda. This synergistic overlap of foreign and national policy agendas emphasized modernization as a way for Russia to restore its great power status in the world. Additionally, the 2008 financial crisis reinforced this policy choice and modernizing aspirations.
In connection to the Copenhagen Conference, the government-owned daily newspaper Rossiiskaia Gazeta reflected the intensified preparations of the official delegation, which was a sign of increased governmental involvement in the then upcoming climate negotiations. The newspaper published several articles, explaining the complexities of international climate agreements. Henry and Sundstrom (2012, p. 1304) point to one such article that described how a representative of the environmental organization Ecodefense argued in support of the positive effects that any effort to mitigate climate change might have on the national economy, particularly by providing opportunities for new business and boosting economic modernization. In another case, the newspaper included the opinion column of the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who maintained the thesis of necessary climate action. Henry and Sundstrom (2012) also cite the statement issued by the Federal Public Chamber (representing selected groups of civil society) that was meant to appeal directly to the president. An excerpt from the statement is as follows:
Russia, which is currently the leading energy power, should become an environmental donor and play a leading role in international negotiations on climate change. This will contribute to global progress, attract significant funds for reforming industry, energy efficiency, and the sustainable development of Russia [. . .]
(Federal Public Chamber, as cited in Henry & Sundstrom, 2012, p. 1304).
Several studies based on cross-national surveys have pointed out that Russians are generally less conscious about the problem of climate change than the citizens of other countries (Whitefield, 2003; Chaisty & Whitefield, 2015). Surveys of public opinion show that climate change awareness among Russians grew during 2000s, but decreased by the early 2010s. The Public Opinion Fund (FOM, 2014) compared two sets of answers, from 2008 and 2014. The polls measured how many people have simply heard about climate change (“global climate warming” in the questionnaire) and how many believed it was actually happening. In 2008, 86% of Russians were aware of climate change and 67% believed it was real. In 2014, these numbers were 82% and 53%—a noticeable drop that marks climate skepticism on the part of almost half of the population. For this reason, the climate change policy is being mostly formulated on a government level, with the help of a small group of science advisors and economists who directly (not merely by media publicity) consult the president. The Kremlin has also appropriated the international negotiation process, such as in the COPs, for positive publicity in handling domestic and foreign affairs. This was particularly the case during Medvedev’s presidency, his modernization initiatives, and participation in COP15 in Copenhagen (Henry & Sundstrom, 2012, p. 1317). In 2015, President Putin used the stage of COP21 in Paris as part of his charm offensive (Clark & Elkin, 2015) to reinstate Russia’s international reputation in the wake of the war in eastern Ukraine. Overall, Henry and Sundstrom’s (2007, 2012) studies emphasize the limited role that public opinion has played in both the international negotiation process and the domestic policy shaping. With the exception of a few environmental groups (as mentioned), there has been no other evidence of civil society pressure and active involvement in the processes. This public disengagement, even at times of increased government attention, has partly been a result of the financial crisis and partly due to the specific role played by the Russian media in communicating climate change issues. As the next section shows, mass media remain largely instrumental in outlining the official policies and promoting government interests.
A large body of research focuses on communication from the perspective of the environmental movement, including climate change activism (Crotty, 2006; Henry, 2010; Henry & Douhovnikoff, 2008; Yanitsky, 2009, 2012) and the question of indigenous peoples (Forbes & Stammler, 2009).
The historical development of the Russian climate change communication can be traced through the analysis of the broader subject of the environmental movement. Yanitsky (2009) documents how environmental debates in Russia dramatically evolved within a short time span. Between the end of the 1980s and the later years of the first decade of the 21st century, the configuration of the main public actors, the range of themes, and the character of environmental discussions changed several times. Apart from the domestic factors, these changes followed the general trend of global challenges to the environment. As humanity had been facing the ever-growing lack of resources, the turmoil of local and regional military conflicts, new waves of migration, and finally, climate change, Russia had also undergone a difficult socioeconomic and political transformation.
According to Yanitsky (2012, p. 935), the Russian environmental movement developed in five stages. During the late socialist society (1960–1985), the main focus was on nature protection and maintenance of natural reserves. Next, during the first liberalization period (1985–1991), nature protection developed through the use of petitions and many local and nationwide protest actions; this was also when environmental NGOs were established. It was followed by the period of democratic upsurge (1991–1993) and appeals for a cleaner and safer environment through the mobilization of a mass eco-political protest movement and another wave of unrestricted access to media. The fourth stage began with the introduction of the market economy (1993–1999). During these years, the environmental movement shifted to more regional representation and protest actions against the marketization of nature protection projects. Finally, after 2000, the stage of the active merger of business and state bureaucracy marked the further regionalization of the environmental movement, its decentralization, and attempts to return to institutional forms of nature protection. This last period also continued into the division of the environmental movement into transnational and local forms.
The international contacts that Russian environmental movements have developed help to withstand political pressures. Based on a survey of 28 environmental organizations across different regions of Russia, Henry (2010) argues, such strategies are especially beneficial for activists who work under conditions of authoritarian governance. Ties with foreign colleagues and joint protest actions provide more legitimacy, gain broader international attention, and sometimes help with legal aid. The most recent and remarkable example is the scandal involving the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise ship in 2013. Activists tried to protest against the plans of a Russian company to extract oil from the Barents Sea. Russian authorities detained the group and accused them of piracy. The international reaction to that incident caused more reputational harm to the mining plans in the Arctic than the initial goals of the activists intended. However, such international solidarity has lost part of its symbolic relevance, at least domestically, since 2012 when the so-called law on “foreign agents” imposed strict regulations on financing of NGOs from abroad, hence, reviving the Cold War rhetoric and accusations of espionage.
Nevertheless, scandals and conflicts only have tactical meaning for many Russian environmentalists. Strategically, they are more interested in constructive dialogue with authorities. The state is concerned with questions of national security and economic growth. Within this value system, public protest and transnational solidarity are threats to security. Attacks on the Russian mining industry threaten economic growth. Therefore, research on the relationships between civil society activists and the Russian state (Henry, 2010) demonstrates that most advances, for instance, in climate change dialogue, occur on a rhetorical rather than an institutional level. The latter is only possible when the state (economic) interests match the appeals of environmental groups. Economic issues have also been preventing the general population from taking less concrete climate issues more seriously. In a comprehensive review of Russian environmental issues, Henry and Douhovnikoff (2008, p. 449) draw attention to the inability of environmental activists and NGOs to influence ordinary Russians and mobilize them into action. The authors cite Stephen Whitefield, a renowned researcher of Russian society, who once wrote, “It is not that Russians are more concerned about the economy and less about the environment. Rather, they are less able to connect their environmental concerns to their economic and other concerns” (2003, pp. 106–107).
On the other hand, people are told that today “it is practically impossible to separate ecological demands from social and political ones” (Yanitsky, 2012, p. 937). Yanitsky refers to the fact that the environmental movement fundamentally stands for the protection of basic human rights—clean water, air, and shelter—that are becoming increasingly vulnerable to deterioration. In return, citizens start asking for cleaner energy sources and demanding safer construction standards for their houses. This means that people, especially those holding an active position on environmental issues, want to use more leverage in government policies. Nevertheless, this is a somewhat removed from what Yanitsky (2012, p. 937) calls “a struggle against consumerism” and “the resource paradigm” of Russian society.
In fact, studies demonstrate how non-idealistic some environmental organizations are. Jo Crotty’s (2006, p. 1326) study of environmental organizations’ role in the Russian province of Samara highlights the character of the relationships between several organizations and the broader civil society in the region. The study relies on semistructured interviews with leaders and active members of fifteen environmental organizations. Instead of explicitly advocating for specific causes or organizing protests to draw public attention, these organizations approached local decision makers through media publications, conferences, and educational programs. They also tried to obtain positions where they could work as advisors.
The constructive noncombatant strategy employed by the organizations studied was possible because of their relatively closed membership and hierarchical structure. This also generated trust between the organizations and local scientists. As Crotty (2006) points out, this environmental movement in Samara neither aimed to engage citizens nor to provoke political campaigning about the problems they worked with. Instead, they chose to cooperate with authorities by gradually building their internal agenda and gaining expertise and authority. Given the formidable task of political resistance in Russia, such a strategy may be a more useful and long-lasting solution to environmental questions.
At the same time, Crotty’s (2006) critical remarks point to the lack of interaction between ordinary citizens and the organizations that are meant to represent them. Moreover, the study problematizes the self-containment of such groups; they were “inert, parochial, and inward looking” (Crotty, 2006, p. 1334), unwilling to form a single unified front of the environmental movement in the region. There are similar tendencies in larger metropolitan areas. A study of environmental NGOs in St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, reveals the huge potential for improvement in the way that activists communicate with their potential audience (Tynkkynen, 2006).
To describe environmental activism in Russia, Yanitsky (2009) applies the same three-stage model that he suggests for the classification of the historical periods of environmental communication. He writes (2009, pp. 759–760) that in the 1960s and 1970s, university students actively helped the Soviet government to control the implementation of environmental legislation. Members of the student organization called the Nature Protection Movement (Druzhina ohrani prirodi) volunteered as public inspectors; their reports were considered valid for formal investigations. When perestroika began in the 1980s, many of these activists turned into independent leaders of local environmental organizations, working to address environmental problems in cities, towns, and even small villages. They also often became public figures, participating in debates. After 2000, environmental activists adopted the dual role of expert-activists, at once advocating for nature protection and co-producing new environmental knowledge. This last shift required a combination of natural and social science expertise because activists had to work in two directions—consulting policymakers and communicating with ethnic communities that sometimes differed socially and culturally from the majority of the population. Now an extreme form of such a development is the growing urgency of learning about the environmental problems of many scattered groups of indigenous people. Climate change already affects their survival strategies and threatens the preservation of their unique cultures.
Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change
Many discussions about communication aspects of modern environmental movements include references to the ways various groups of indigenous peoples communicate their needs and fears in relation to climate change. Ethnic communities of indigenous people often live close to nature. They inhabit rural territories, where land and wildlife are their primary means of subsistence. Whether it is hunting or fishing, farming or cattle raising, indigenous peoples have earned such forms of livelihood for generations. In many countries, these groups are also located far from the main populations in large urban centers or are culturally so different from others that within this geographical or cultural isolation, they develop their own identities, mutual dependencies, and self-determination. Sometimes, there is also a lack of communication with central authorities, national media systems, and institutes of science. For these reasons, when climate change causes extreme weather conditions or rapidly erodes local landscapes, the isolation factors multiply the threats to the lifestyles of indigenous peoples.
There are several dozens of minor (each with a population of less than 50,000) indigenous groups in Russia. Many of them live in the Far North, beyond the Arctic Circle, where the effects of climate change are known to be most visible and urgent. However, there is scant research on Russian indigenous peoples and climate change.
Although in the West, many studies have been conducted on indigenous communities, the Russian context of the topic is mostly neglected, with the rare exception of Forbes and Stammler’s (2009) work. The authors conducted fieldwork using interviews and participant observations with reindeer herders in the Russian North. According to them, climate change is one of three concepts that shape academic discourses about human–nature relationship in the Arctic, the other two being “wildlife management” and “traditional ecological knowledge.” The three concepts originate in the Western research tradition and do not always reflect the local realities of the Russian Arctic region. Forbes and Stammler’s (2009) study fills the large gap in this under-researched area, both conceptually and geographically. These researchers point out that the indigenous movement in the West has grown stronger since the 1990s, while it has remained rather weak in Russia. They also draw a contrast between Western indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit in Canada or the Saami in Northern Europe, and their Russian counterparts. Whereas in the West, indigenous groups participate actively in academic and political debates about climate change, in Russia, they are more concerned about negotiating their legal status and self-determination. Due to the differences in communicative strategies and particular local nuances, applying generalizing discourses of climate change means simplifying unique and complex contexts.
People experiencing environmental change do not necessarily perceive it as such. The role of mass media can be crucial in this respect. Forbes and Stammler (2009) take a critical stand toward a typical research design that takes institutionalized discourses by default and applies them to radically different contexts in which indigenous groups live. The point is that the concepts prepared and elaborated for the North American political culture can be misleading or insufficient elsewhere. For example, it has been shown how political transformation in the late era of the Soviet Union (perestroika) influenced many aspects of social organization. It also brought significant changes to the lives of indigenous minorities in Russia. Previously, all lands were owned by the state; no private ownership existed. With perestroika, the land rights and the new regime of ownership became vital for these people. Land ownership was entirely new as a concept and difficult to accept as a practical matter. Even after many years since the legal introduction of the land rights, Siberia’s nomadic Nenets refused to accept that the different parcels of land could belong to different owners (Forbes & Stammler, 2009, p. 34).
Much of contemporary environmental (and climate change) communication occurs in traditional journalistic forms and comprises the essence of environmental journalism. This section links the historical development of environmental journalism in Russia to the current examples of climate change coverage and emergence of alternative sources of environmental information.
The current state of environmental journalism in Russia has deep roots in earlier historical periods. Yanitsky (2009, pp. 757–759) defines three such periods spanning the last fifty years. The Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s had a strict hierarchy; only a small group of scientists and intellectuals had the right to media appearances and the expression of their expert knowledge. Discussions about environmental issues could only be part of the official information about regional planning and state programs, never as topics on their own. Due to the high status of natural sciences in the Soviet Union and the generally well-educated population, the scope of the problems discussed was relatively wide and complex yet stayed within the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
During the second period, starting with perestroika in the 1980s, environmental news and commentary developed into an independent subject. The 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe was one of the factors influencing this development, triggering more open discussions about environmental issues. The press blossomed with this new type of information. Although the Communist Party bureaucrats refused to take action on environmental issues, the pressure of the free mass media had been growing. According to Yanitsky (2009), if the television news picked up a particular story that complained about certain issues or called for solutions, such heightened public attention already meant that officials would have to respond to the demands. This was also the time when all kinds of experts and activists appeared in the media, commenting on environmental problems. The content of debates differed from that of the earlier period so that scientists stopped simply popularizing their knowledge. Some of them began playing a more advocative role, participating in the growing environmental movement.
The turn of the 21st century marked the beginning of the third period of this simplified classification (Yanitsky, 2009). The mainstream media space was again politically controlled. The main newsmakers were the government officials and experts who supported the official state policy. Instead of the polarized environmental debates of the previous period, the media mostly reported on natural disasters and catastrophes. Accordingly, the media tone switched from deliberative to didactic and sensationalist.
Yanitsky describes this whole half-century evolution as “a shift from an attitude of ecological enlightenment through a short period of ‘information for mobilization’ to the times of measured, ‘balanced’ and sterile information in the name of political correctness” (2009, p. 758). However, he concludes by pointing out two most recent trends. On one hand, the official policy gradually brought the environmental subject back to the mass media, confirming other studies about Medvedev’s modernization agenda. On the other hand, the return of political control and loyalty thresholds in the mainstream media forced many social actors to move their communication efforts to alternative media platforms, mostly to the Internet.
In practice, environmental journalism is similar to investigative journalism, especially when its job is to expose power abuses, policies, and decisions that can be damaging for nature. Joel Simon (2009) notes that in nondemocratic countries, this job is often dangerous. At best, reporters may be unlawfully prosecuted; at worst, they are attacked or murdered. Simon (2009) reminds readers about the severe beating suffered in 2008 by the Russian environmental journalist Mikhail Beketov, allegedly for his coverage of the controversial deforestation project close to Moscow. Simon (2009) mentions this incident to argue more generally about the difficulty in reporting on climate change problems in many countries. One obstacle is that such reporting may contradict the official policies; hence, it is dangerous. The other frequently mentioned hindrance is that quality journalistic work on a complicated climate story is expensive (Simon, 2009, p. 88), and many newsrooms cannot afford to produce original materials.
Climate Change Coverage: Empirical Reality and Academic Findings
Retrospectively one can testify that it was COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 that became a major moment of attention to the problem of climate change in the Russia media (see Figure 1). The event coincided with the active phase of the Russian modernization debate and climate policy development. The media coverage of the event, which President Medvedev attended, underscored this moment domestically, spurring discussions of climate issues and policies to new levels of publicity. However, an analysis of the newspaper reporting about the conference reveals the predominance of short factual news stories and the lack of opinion writing (Yagodin, 2010, pp. 278–279). This pattern was common for both of the newspapers selected for the study—the popular Moskovsky Komsomolets and the business daily Kommersant. The coverage by Kommersant, where readers would expect more signs of deliberation on the subject dealing with economic modernization, was even less opinionated (10% of the stories) than the reporting by the popular newspaper (23%).
Figure 1 shows how the volume of climate change coverage in Russia developed from 2000 to 2016. The data is drawn from Integrum database and represents a relative number of news stories that mentioned “climate change” or “global warming” in 430 sources of central press. The relative scale means that the number of cases (news items) where the search terms appeared is a share of the total number of items. The numeric data tells us three things. First, there was a steady growth of climate change coverage throughout the 2000s and a slight decline after 2010. The highest peak came at the end of 2009, and it coincides with publication of Russia’s Climate Doctrine and COP15. Notably, much of the increased level of climate change coverage falls in the years of Medvedev’s presidency (2008–2012). Second, by choosing to compare two terms—“climate change” and “global warming”—we can see a change of language patterns. Initially, media used “global warming” slightly more frequently than “climate change,” but essentially reversed this trend roughly after 2009. Third, the numbers highlight some of the key moments with sharp peaks, particularly in January 2007, December 2009, and August 2010. The surge in 2009 has already been explained. A look at the actual news stories from the other two peaks shows that the media actively reported on unprecedented weather anomalies—snowless and rainy New Year holidays in 2007 and the hot summer of 2010 with thousands deaths in heat waves and forest fires.
A COP, a media event that reflects the global concern with rapidly changing environments everywhere in the world, is a chance for journalists to link practical life situations or natural disasters affecting ordinary people to the high level of intergovernmental and domestic policymaking mechanisms. From the analysis of the Russian press, it is known that the media’s interest was largely restricted to the policy level and that they did not discuss the actual effects of climate change in any depth (Yagodin, 2010, p. 288). For example, the key topics of the COP15 coverage were economic efficiency, global energy security, and national interest, exactly the central points in Russia’s climate doctrine. However, when Schmidt and colleagues’ (2013) studied media attention to climate change in 27 countries, they found that Russia’s coverage did not correspond to its carbon-intensive economy, staying rather low as compared to the countries with a similar economic model. Schmidt and colleagues suggest that the lack of domestic pressure might be “due to the generous Kyoto target of the country, which did not prescribe, in contrast to all other countries, emission reductions in comparison to a business-as-usual trajectory” (2013, p. 12).
Poberezhskaya (2015) argues that the national mass media’s limited discussion of the issues related to climatic change poses a greater challenge for proper public debate than even the cases of biased and controversial reporting. With little media attention in the first place, there is no sufficient agenda to spawn more public discussions. According to Poberezhskaya (2015), it is common for Russian journalists who report on climate change to rely on official sources of information in an uncritical way and not to question climate policies. Such journalistic attitudes do not stimulate climate debates either.
Journalists in their reporting of climate change rely on different sources of information. They may choose to interview scientists, experts, politicians, civic activists or ordinary citizens. The actual choice defines how the topic is presented. Analysis of sources has been a common method of media studies. During climate conferences, the Russian press mostly relied on the views expressed by domestic politicians. At the COP15 in Copenhagen, these were President Medvedev and other members of the Russian delegation (Yagodin, 2010, p. 283). The next most frequently quoted groups of sources were foreign heads of states and foreign government officials, followed by representatives of science disciplines. Compared to them, the presence of civil society, environmental activist groups, and NGOs were quite scarce.
In 2009, among the Russian scientists, there was already little skepticism about climate change, yet disagreements persisted regarding how to handle the problem. The range of opinions varied from criticizing the politically exaggerated character of the problem to accusations of its excessive commercialization (Yagodin, 2010, p. 284). Such opinions were typical for climate communication in the mainstream media at that time.
Wilson Rowe’s (2009) study of climate change coverage in the government-owned daily newspaper Rossiiskaia Gazeta shows that in 2000, there had already been a public consensus about the ongoing global warming. However, the disagreement had been about the causes of climate change. The coverage also raised questions about who could prevent or mitigate climate change and who should be responsible for it. Particularly, the causality question generated skepticism due to continuous references to the cyclical nature of climate variations that was not necessarily influenced by human activity. Against these debates, the main focus of Wilson Rowe’s (2009) study is to highlight the role of scientists in shaping and solving the disagreements. Although not decisive regarding the final framing of the problem, experts played an important instrumental role in supporting the policymakers but not influencing them (Wilson Rowe, 2009, p. 611). Although scientific experts quantitatively dominated the coverage, their qualitative input was less significant. For example, before Russia joined the Kyoto Protocol, scientists were exceptionally vocal about the potential causes of climate change, but their heated debate vanished when the document was finally ratified (Wilson Rowe, 2009). Wilson Rowe (2009) concludes that it is part of the Russian political culture of legitimation to create the visibility of the interaction between decision makers and communities of scientific knowledge and expertise.
The presence of large numbers of journalists at major climate events is a sign of high newsworthiness. Therefore, scholars have been assessing the levels of interest that a particular country lends to climate change issues by counting how many of its journalists cover the annual COPs. A media study of the COP in Copenhagen (Painter, 2010) mentions 4,000 journalists from 119 countries. The majority of these journalists (85%) came from the developed world. Among them were 36 journalists from Russia, much more than at the preceding conferences in Bali and Poznań. In practice, very few of these journalists came to report on climate change; they were mostly political correspondents who follow national leaders to any formal event. Nonetheless, 20 countries had sent more journalists to Copenhagen than Russia, including Bangladesh, India, Switzerland, and Finland, immediately outranking Russia in terms of numbers of journalists (Painter, 2010, p. 106). The small number of Russian journalists also resulted in a relatively low coverage as compared to other countries in Painter’s (2010) and other studies (e.g., Eide, Kunelius, & Kumpu, 2010).
Climate Change and Alternative Media
The advent of the Internet revolutionized communications. This development also had far-reaching consequences for the environmental movement, which gained access to new forms of media as alternatives to the mainstream mass media. One of the early studies shedding light on this change is Shannon O’Lear’s (1997) work on the use of email to exchange information and to organize networked cooperation between eco-activists on the Russian–Estonian border. A large part of the border goes across the lake called Peipsi on the Estonian side and Chudskoye on the Russian side. In the beginning of 1996, the two countries signed an agreement, committing both sides to the coordinated protection of the lake territory. This policy document became possible after several years of coordinated work of several civil society groups, environmental activists, and experts, scattered across the region. The cross-border coordination was significantly facilitated by the use of email, which helped create “perceived spaces of resistance” and “strengthen previously silenced voices in society” (O’Lear, 1997, p. 275).
Such projects were becoming more and more common, as the Russian state was turning increasingly inert in handling environmental questions, and the mainstream media was losing interest in relevant policies. However, the difference was that the link between activist efforts and concrete policy decisions was becoming less and less tangible. In effect, it was precisely due to the Internet that new spaces for the environmental debate opened and stimulated transnational cooperation rather than domestic policy implications (Yanitsky, 2009, p. 760). Because of the state’s self-isolation by the end of the 1990s, communication by new sources of environmental knowledge was limited to the use of small-scale online media, as opposed to the mass media comprising the traditional press and television. Yanitsky’s (2009, p. 757) historical analysis shows that in the 1970s, science information was widely circulated among educated citizens and reached the government officials in one way or another. With perestroika, the diffusion of such information even broadened, involving debates among all social groups and in public spaces. However, the situation has been reversed during the 2000s. Information has become more international in scope, while at the same time being narrowly confined to expert communities and the digital spaces of the Internet.
The development of new media technologies (blogging, file sharing, and social networking sites) enables more forms of alternative communication about the subject of climate change. This area attracts researchers with fresh angles on the problem and on methodological challenges. Within this framework, studies focusing on Russia include such topics as climate change discussions on social media (Poberzhskaya, 2014), comparisons on the ways that coverage of the COP summits overlaps in legacy media and alternative news sites in the US, Canada, and Russia (Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014). An important aspect of new media is that they may offer alternative agendas to climate change issues. As discussed, traditional mainstream mass media either reproduce the official discourse or totally ignore the subject. In her study of Russian online blogs and Twitter posts, Poberezhskaya (2014) explores whether these alternative media tools can fill the gap in traditional media. She concludes that new media indeed help diversify the representation of climate change questions, but their capacity to promote discussions to a higher level of publicity remains rather limited.
International studies of Twitter communications about climate change (e.g., Pearce, Holmberg, Hellsten, & Nerlich, 2014) reveal three types of communities: critics of climate change, groups convinced about climate change, and groups with neutral attitudes. The first impression is that the representation of climate-related issues is much broader on social media sites. However, the analysis of interactions among different users shows that communities holding opposite views tend to form self-contained, inward-looking groups; people mostly sign up to follow (and interact with) users with like-minded opinions. The lack of intergroup communication fragments social groups, polarizes climate change discussions, and hinders deliberation. Using a similar approach, Poberezhskaya (2014) finds that Russian-language Twitter communication consists primarily of messages that feature the category of users who are convinced about the occurrence of climate change. The small representation of the other two groups—climate critics and people with indifferent (neutral) attitudes—can be a result of the relatively strong political engagement and high educational level of Twitter users (Poberezhskaya, 2014, p. 41). The main communicative outcome of such social media interactions is increased awareness about climate change and its negative consequences. The limitation in this case is again the inward-looking communication; the audience of a separate Twitter feed cannot compete with the size of a newspaper readership, which in turn is also quite small compared to the audience of a television channel. The short texting format of Twitter (up to 140 characters) has also been criticized for causing ambiguity of message interpretation.
Poberezhskaya’s (2014) study also shows that compared to Twitter, the Russian blogosphere has more materials criticizing or denying any climate change consensus. A typical criticism is about the overestimated role of humans in triggering climate change or about the benefits of global warming (Poberezhskaya, 2014, p. 43). Regarding the overall range of opinions, blogging displays significantly more diverse debates than those in the traditional media. This issue raises an important normative question—is it more appropriate to have a broader scope of controversial and, at times, misleading climate change stories, or is it better to foster a narrowly defined consensus? This is a media question that other industries call quality control.
Another social media feature that undermines its characteristic as an alternative to the mainstream media is that traditional media institutions still produce much of the content circulating on the Internet. Therefore, it is problematic to claim the full independence of web-based climate change discourses. As primarily a communicative tool rather than a publishing platform, Twitter posts (more than blogs) contain excerpts copied from or hyperlinked to the mainstream climate change coverage (Poberezhskaya, 2014, p. 44). Thus, Poberezhskaya’s (2014) study doubts whether the new media can significantly facilitate or enrich climate change communication in Russia. The positive effects are limited to the self-actualization of previously underrepresented actors, such as NGOs, individual science experts, and activists, as well as skeptics of climate change. It appears that social media are more useful for these actors in positioning themselves against others and potentially monitoring the range of existing debates. Therefore, the alternative nature of these media should be understood as not directly challenging the mainstream media but as shaping and coordinating various communities of interests, which are important, too.
In practice, the interplay between traditional and alternative media may take many forms. A recent study of possible overlaps that often occur between these two domains mentions two examples of Russian climate change communication (Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014), both using the 2009 COP in Copenhagen as the empirical context. In the first example, Vladimir Chuprov, a leading climate expert from Greenpeace Russia, attempted to write a blog while attending the conference. During the event, he published 22 original articles that subsequently appeared in many climate-related blog communities. Some of the articles also became part of the news section of the Greenpeace website. The Russian traditional mass media did not use Chuprov’s blog posts to complement their own coverage (Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014). However, his established publicity gained the attention of journalists, who interviewed him about the event and used him as an expert, only occasionally referring to his personal blog. In terms of productivity, the amount of information that Chuprov generated during the conference exceeded the total coverage of the same event by several leading Russian newspapers (cf. Yagodin, 2010). Ultimately, this form of self-communication by climate experts has begun to be observed more often due to social media. However, its impact is limited to communication with other members of the climate change communicator community, including climate journalists.
The other example presented in Tegelberg and colleagues’ (2014) study is a reverse approach to the same communication problem. A Russian news agency reporter covered the COP17 in Durban. In addition to daily news updates for the agency, the journalist attempted a more active use of Twitter and her personal blog during the conference. However, the routine of regular work took up all this reporter’s time and energy so that the additional social media communication was virtually impossible to maintain. The experiment, if it can be called as such, failed due to the journalist’s relatively weak integration into the social media networks. Having joined Twitter and a blog service shortly before the event, the journalist did not have enough followers and mutual ties within the networks of climate interest. Eventually, this limitation affected the communicative capacity of the newly created alternative media channels. However, the use of Twitter was beneficial for that journalist as it allowed fast access to other sources of information and reading news feeds of the leading international media agencies.
A more general analysis (Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014, p. 78) of interactions (hyperlinking) between different websites during the COPs in Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011) shows the central role of international NGOs in Russia. Many references to climate change linked NGOs, such as Greenpeace, WWF, and Oxfam, to local environmental groups in Russia and to official UN institutions, the organizers of the conferences. Little connection was found between this dominant communication space and Russia’s mainstream media websites (Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014). This was true for Copenhagen and even more pronounced for Durban. Compared to the contexts of Canada and the US that are included in the study, these results indicate significantly less dynamic information exchanges among professional media workers, activist groups, and bloggers (Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014, p. 79). This case may be due to the overall journalistic and political culture, which is radically different in North America. It may also be due to the level of Internet access, which is still much lower in Russia. These factors contribute to the isolation of Russian alternative spaces of climate communication, which remains elitist in this respect and marginalized.
From the review, it follows that, as an empirical reality, discussions about climate change are closely connected to issues of energy security, although this connection can be articulated in different, sometimes opposite ways. If Russia wants to develop a more balanced public debate about climate change, the voice of the expert community should be more pronounced. Scientists argue that climate change will have serious consequences for energy consumption and regimes of energy security in many countries. Sharples (2013, p. 695) expects that in the light of climate change and the necessary actions to handle it, many importers of Russian energy resources will have to revise their demands by 2030. While the EU will have to reduce natural gas consumption, China and India may be ready to buy much more than they do today. These changes require smooth mechanisms of transition to adapt to new conditions. Therefore, apart from this issue, Russia’s future development of its energy industry, hence its overall economic growth, is more dependent on transnational measures of coping with global warming than on domestic climate action.
It is clear by now that the state-controlled media in Russia often either ignore or deliberately avoid the subject by following the business interests of the elites and the official agenda. However, Poberezhskaya (2016) predicts more reporting on climate change because there is evidence that the elites have seen opportunities in pursuing new climate policies. Moreover, there is proof that climate communication will also be developed through digital communication tools, specifically, social media and alternative media projects. What can the two stories mentioned in this article about alternative media uses for climate change communication teach us? In one case, an NGO leader capitalizes on access to media events and self-communication. In the second case, a busy journalist explores new terrains through the use of social media. Both cases highlight communicative opportunities of alternative media platforms that the Internet now provides in abundance, but they also serve as reminders about some fundamental questions of the audience, publicity, and power relations in the media sphere. Yanitsky argues (2009, p. 763) that only recently a shift to the reorientation of the environmental agenda has occurred in the worldview of the Russian political elite. They have become more concerned with humanitarian aspects in addressing global challenges. Coinciding with Medvedev’s modernization period, Yanitsky’s study can be critically reconsidered against more recent developments of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.
Nonetheless, a positive interpretation would point to what Yanitsky (2009) observes in his long historical perspective as the trajectory of Russian environmental development along a “winding road” rather than a straightforward movement. This leaves its citizens with the hope for a new turn in the country’s environmental and climate change debate. Henry and Sundstrom (2012, p. 1319) note that the 2012 presidential transition from Medvedev back to Putin did not retain the theme of modernization in the political discourse of elites. In his departing speech, Medvedev did not mention it; neither was it explicitly stated during the first years of Putin’s third term. The conflict in eastern Ukraine and, more recently, the war in Syria have moved the climate agenda to the background of the official agenda. However, it is known that when Putin spoke at the UN General Assembly in September 2015, he did include climate change in his otherwise geopolitically loaded speech. It is possible that climate change will again become a subject that Russia will use to restore its damaged international reputation. Therefore, the next major question for research is how this will be translated into domestic climate agenda and action. Will Russia follow Giddens’ (2010) advice, as mentioned in the introduction, or will it choose another way?
As a research field, climate change communication with a specific focus on Russia shares common features with other contexts. Climate change communication as part of the climate politics, the environmental movement, and journalism exists in different forms. They range from policy formulation at the government level to policy negotiation on the intergovernmental UN platforms, from mainstream media coverage to alternative sites of public debate and mobilization, from organized civil society initiatives to discourses about indigenous communities.
The specificity of the Russian case is a generally low media interest in reporting on climate change, environmental journalism’s low profile, and the restricted abilities of environmental movements to work with the public. The field of communication research focusing on climate change is growing, but provides very few examples of systematic work and international comparisons. Most of the research focuses on traditional media content, especially print newspapers. There are many gaps in studies of alternative forms of climate change communication, such as environmental online portals and social media groups. Even though in Russia this sphere appears marginalized and often policy-irrelevant, old institutional forms are becoming increasing involved in the Internet space. One such example is a website called climaterussia.org. It was launched shortly before the COP21 in Paris in 2015. Climaterussia.org is a rare example of a climate change news portal with ties to Russia’s state organizations, using government sources and targeting internet audiences in Russian, English, and French. This is another empirical reality that represents a hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2013) and deserves more analysis. Studies reflecting on such new forms of climate change communication constitute one of the unexplored areas in the Russian scholarship.
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