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Russian media take climate cue from sceptical Putin

* Russian media say public not interested in climate change
    * Little or no discussion in mainstream media
    * Russian pledge for UN summit is an increase from 2012
emissions

    By Andrey Kuzmin
    MOSCOW, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Wildfires crackled across Siberia
this summer, turning skies ochre and sending up enough smoke
from burning pines to blot out satellite views of the
400-mile-long Lake Baikal.
    To many climate scientists, the worsening fires are a
consequence of Siberia getting hotter, the carbon unleashed from
its burning forests and tundra only adding to man-made fossil
fuel emissions. Siberia's wildfire season has lengthened in
recent years and the 2015 blazes were among the biggest yet,
caking the lake, the "Pearl of Siberia", in ash and scorching
the surrounding permafrost.
    But the Russian public heard little mention of climate
change, because media coverage across state-controlled
television stations and print media all but ignored it. On
national TV, the villains were locals who routinely but
carelessly burn off tall grasses every year, and the sometimes
incompetent crews struggling to put the fires out.
    While Western media have examined the role of rising
temperatures and drought in this year's record wildfires in
North America, Russian media continue to pay little attention to
an issue that animates so much of the world.
    The indifference reflects widespread public doubt that human
activities play a significant role in global warming, a tone set
by President Vladimir Putin, who has offered only vague and
modest pledges of emissions cuts ahead of December's U.N.
climate summit in Paris.
    Russia's official view appears to have changed little since
2003, when Putin told an international climate conference that
warmer temperatures would mean Russians "spend less on fur
coats" while "agricultural specialists say our grain production
will increase, and thank God for that".
    The president believes that "there is no global warming,
that this is a fraud to restrain the industrial development of
several countries including Russia," says Stanislav Belkovsky, a
political analyst and critic of Putin. "That is why this subject
is not topical for the majority of the Russian mass media and
society in general."
    And with Russian media focused on the economic squeeze at
home and events in Ukraine and Syria abroad, the absence of a
robust media conversation on climate change means his scepticism
goes largely unchallenged.
    "It is difficult to spend editorial resources on things that
are now a low priority in the midst of the economic crisis,"
says Galina Timchenko, former editor-in-chief of the successful
news site Lenta.ru. Timchenko now runs Meduza, a popular site
that covers Russian news but devotes little space to climate
issues.
    "Unfortunately climate change is not very interesting to the
public," she says.
    
    "EXTENSIVE WORK"
    Putin's scepticism dates from the early 2000s, when his
staff "did very, very extensive work trying to understand all
sides of the climate debate", said Andrey Illarionov, Putin's
senior economic adviser at the time and now a senior fellow at
the Cato Institute in Washington.
    "We found that, while climate change does exist, it is
cyclical, and the anthropogenic role is very limited," he said.
"It became clear that the climate is a complicated system and
that, so far, the evidence presented for the need to 'fight'
global warming was rather unfounded."
    That opinion endures. During a trip to the Arctic in 2010,
Putin acknowledged that "the climate is changing", but restated
his doubt that human activity was the cause.
    His trip was to inspect the retreat of the polar ice cap,
something that promises to make the Arctic ocean and northern
Siberia more accessible to exploration and production of the oil
that Russia, the world's leading producer, depends on for export
earnings.
    Marianna Poberezhskaya, author of the academic work
"Communicating Climate Change in Russia", characterised media
coverage in Russia as "climate silence", broken only by the
airing of official doubts about any human impact on global
temperatures.
    "Russian mass media repeat the same mistake that Western
journalists used to make: the false balance, where the idea of
the human effect on climate change is presented along with
sceptics' point of view," she said.
    Russian school teaching also appears to lag behind the
rapidly expanding science on climate change.
    Randomly sampled geography textbooks make no mention of
human impact on the climate, and one college-level text states
that climate changes are caused mainly by solar activity, the
movement of the planet's crust and volcanoes.
    "I see what they have abroad on the problem of climate
change," says Asya Korolkova, 15, who studies high school
biology in Moscow. "People there talk about it a lot; you can
feel it's a serious problem. We don't have that here."
    
    DECREASE IS AN INCREASE
    Environmentalists say that attitude is also reflected in
Russia's pledge for December's global summit, one that received
little media coverage at home.
    In suggesting a reduction in its emissions to "70 to 75
percent" of 1990 levels by 2030, Moscow is actually proposing an
increase from 2012 levels. Russian emissions are currently far
below the levels produced by obsolescent ex-Soviet smokestack
industries in 1990.
    Even that offer is hedged. Russia has said reaching the
target will require generous accounting for the role Russia's
forests play in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
    Some observers do see signs of a slight softening in
Moscow's position in the face of a series of weather disasters,
from drought and searing summer fires in 2010 to raging floods
in Sochi on the Black Sea last year.
    Natural resources minister Sergei Donskoy has said extreme
weather could cut Russia's economic output by 1-2 percent every
year for the next 15 years, adding that "this has to be taken
into account when determining the policy and measures in the
field of adaptation to climate change".
    The business newspaper Kommersant, owned by wealthy
businessman Alisher Usmanov, is, like some other Russian media,
taking some interest in those economic consequences, though it
also did not discuss the possibility that climate change might
have contributed to the Siberian fires.
    "I write about what needs to be done to change production
and consumption practices - the human effect on the climate is a
given for us," said Kommersant journalist Alexey Shapovalov.
    But for all that, there is no sign of public pressure on
authorities to do more, let alone of Putin relaxing Russia's
hard line ahead of the Paris talks.
    "This subject has failed to become a priority," says
Konstantin Simonov, the founder of a non-governmental oil and
gas research fund who often appears on Russian media.
    "Russia's attitude will most likely be something like this:
Guys, you put economic pressure on us, introduced sanctions. Do
you expect us to be holier than the Pope about the issue you're
pushing through and take a load of responsibilities?"
    The answer, he says, will be: "No."

    
 (Additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo; Editing by
Bruce Wallace and Kevin Liffey)
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