Climate change: A view from St. Petersburg, Russia

Thanks to climate change, sea level in the Gulf of Finland may by the end of this century rise by between 0.4 and 1 meter. Regular flooding has already made itself felt in the resort district of Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg. {Photo: Dina/Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks to climate change, sea level in the Gulf of Finland may by the end of this century rise by between 0.4 and 1 meter. Regular flooding has already made itself felt in the resort district of Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg. {Photo: Dina/Wikimedia Commons)

Publish date: July 13, 2015

Written by: Lina Zernova

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG—On June 6, a global citizen consultation day, held in 104 cities in 79 world countries under the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy initiative, brought together people of all ages, vocations and social standing to discuss climate change, how it affects their lives and home countries, and what should be done about it. Russia, too, became part of this global meeting, with 109 participants gathered for a climate change citizen consultation at the Ambassador hotel in St. Petersburg.

World Wide Views on Climate and Energy, the project’s website says, is a “global citizen consultation, providing unique information about how far citizens around the world are willing to go in order to deal with climate change and to bring forward an energy transition.”

On June 6, starting at dawn in the Pacific, and continuing until dusk in the Americas, citizens selected to reflect the demographic diversity in their countries or regions were to attend daylong meetings, receiving information about pros, cons, and views on different climate and energy policies, targets and measures, with the meetings following the same agenda and guidelines in order to make their results comparable, the website explains.

In other words, the initiative’s goal is to have the voice of the many various sections of broad society be heard on one of the greatest threats to humankind. The World Wide Views 2015 on Climate and Energy is co-initiated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, the French National Commission for Public Debate, the Danish Board of Technology Foundation and France’s Missions Publiques, with the support of the French Government, which is the host of this year’s, 21st, session of the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties (COP), the project’s website says. Thus, those gathered were offered to speak their mind on the issues that will be discussed in November and December at the COP21 talks in Paris, where countries are expected to agree on the renewed, post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

In St. Petersburg, over a hundred participants gathered at the Ambassador hotel for the global climate and energy citizen consultation. Given that June 6 was a Saturday, the day happened to be a sunny one, and that the subject does not, frankly, get quite much hype among the Russian public, such a high turnout was a welcome surprise. Those in attendance included students, social workers, pensioners, teachers, doctors, factory workers, programmers, actors, journalists, engineers… Their ages ranged from 18 to 72.

The weather’s running amok…

– Why are you here? – is my question to Andrei Kiselyov, senior researcher at the St. Petersburg-based Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory.

– I am participating as an expert; I have been invited, as a greenhouse gas specialist, by the organizers, the environmental organization “Friends of the Baltic.” Indeed, most of our fellow citizens don’t pay much mind to climate change, believing this to be an abstract problem. Meanwhile, temperature on the planet has risen by 0.7 degrees [Celsius] in the past 25 years, and by as much as one and a half degrees in the Arctic. And we are ourselves already experiencing climate change. Think of the summer of 2010, when tropical heat came into town. People with poor health weren’t coping – city hospitals were overfilled, thousands of deaths attributed to the heat were registered. This is real damage to public health.

Economic damage is being done, too. Devastating floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires are on the rise. According to data by the [Federal Service for Hydrometeorological and Environmental Monitoring], 150 extreme weather events were registered in Russia in 1997, 310 in 2004, over 350 in 2005, and 469 in 2012! That means several times as much money was needed to rebuild the infrastructure…

– And that the weather’s running amok, is man at fault here?

– The greenhouse effect has always been there, without it, average temperature on Earth would be 19 degrees [Celsius] below zero. Still, human activity is beginning to play an increasingly noticeable role. Or, call it the “anthropogenic factor.” And if we don’t undertake any effort, the damage from the climate calamities will exceed our adaptation abilities.

st pete climate 1 Participants of the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation day in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

– Could, in your view, Russian citizens influence the Russian government so that it takes measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

– In developed countries, politicians depend on the citizens: If the former fail to act in the interests of the latter, they lose their posts. Not here. That’s why there’s much talk, but little action in Russia. For instance, there are only five greenhouse gas monitoring stations deployed in the Arctic. One – the most up-to-date one – is operating in Tiksi [on the northern shore of Sakha (Yakutia) Republic], thanks to our cooperation with the Finns and the Americans. With such level of financing in our science, with this attitude to scientific research, it’s extremely difficult to make accurate scientific forecasts. Where does one find the words to convince the people who do the decision-making?…

Time to start adapting

Another expert taking part in the citizen climate and energy consultation in St. Petersburg was Gennady Menzhulin, D.Sc. in Engineering, professor at the St. Petersburg State University.

st-pete-climate-2-320x240 D.Sc. Eng., Prof. Gennady Menzhulin at the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation in St. Petersburg, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

– Gennady Viktorovich, it seems the world has today divided into two big groups: those who recognize the fact of global warming and those who deny it…

– To deny [global] warming is impossible. One significant indicator of the process is the state of the polar ice. The area of the Arctic ice cap is decreasing precipitously. According to forecasts, in September 2090, the ice of the North Pole will melt completely. Of course, it will be building up again during the winter months, but icebreakers on the Northern Trade Route will be something our successors will no longer need.

– That’s good. Although, the global ocean levels will rise, which is bad…

– Which is why we need to move infrastructure into safe places. There is this island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, part of the territory of which has already been submerged. Owing to that same [sea level] rise. In some twenty or thirty years only, a country with a population of 100,000 people may soon disappear. So, the question: What do we do? Build dams or move to, say, the African continent, where there’s a lot of land?

– Moving might be cheaper…

– Exactly. So, infrastructure adaptation is needed. Holland is constructing dams. The U.S., too, has time for now to build dams and move its cities deep into the mainland. We need to prepare that there will be rough going. I believe these citizen consultations are necessary exactly so that every nation could determine for itself which measures it needs to take.

Climate change is destroying St. Petersburg’s resort area…

Are there any adaptation measures in planning in St. Petersburg? I spoke about it with Yulia Menshova, chief specialist with the St. Petersburg City Administration’s Committee for Management of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection, and Ecological Safety Assurance.

st-pete-climate-3-240x320 Yulia Menshova, chief specialist with the St. Petersburg City Administration’s Committee for Management of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection, and Ecological Safety Assurance, at the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation in St. Petersburg, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

– St. Petersburg was the first city in Russia to set to developing its own climate strategy. We were lucky: As early back as the 2000s, we started, in cooperation with our Finnish colleagues, to work on the project “Adaptation of the urban environment to the negative consequences of climate change.” A huge array of information has been collected as part of the project, having to do with the changes in temperature and precipitation, the rise of the [sea] level in the Gulf of Finland, and other parameters. Based on them, maps of eleven types of risks were put together, three of which are climate-dependent. Thus, we had maps of storm surge flooding areas and waterlogging areas, as well as of coastal abrasion (erosion of the shoreline).

We know that by the end of the century, the level of the Gulf of Finland may rise by between 0.4 and 1 meter. That the resort area of St. Petersburg is already suffering from flooding. Especially during the periods when the [stop gates of the] Flood Prevention Facility Complex (the St. Petersburg Dam) [are] closed [to stave off water]. At these times, the repelled wave comes down hard on the coast of the [resort area of St. Petersburg’s] Kurortny District. The coastal infrastructure is gradually being destroyed – the expensive real estate, the restaurants, the beaches… The Committee has repeatedly forwarded a coastal protection initiative. Billions of roubles will be required for that. A lot. But if no measures are taken, the potential economic damage will be seven times in excess of the damage from the destruction.

– Is there an energy saving section in the climate strategy?

– This is the prerogative of the Committee for Energy [and Utilities]. After all, our city is being developed based on particular state programs, worked out for each industry sector. So far, climate factors do not figure there. That’s why we need both new state programs – that’s a [Russian] Federation matter – and new laws and regulations, which can be initiated by the city. A climate doctrine can serve as a basis for the development of new documents. The city government’s committees and departments will also have to have specialists with experience working out action plans for each particular sector. But before that, a doctrine needs to be completed and adopted. We are planning at the year’s end to invite experts, form a working group, and propose a project for public discussion. In short, it’s all still ahead.

– How, in your opinion, are climate problems perceived by the common city population?

– With skepticism. It seems sometimes, even, that people are annoyed by it. Everyone lives in the here and now, few want to think 50 or 100 years ahead. That’s why events of this kind are so important. I am for spreading information, for involving people in the process, even those understanding little in the problem. The consultation will inspire many to read something, raise their awareness level. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

A green view from Sennaya Square

The municipality of Sennoi District, an area in the heart of St. Petersburg, was the co-organizer of the climate and energy consultation. I am talking with the municipality’s head, Natalya Astakhova.

st-pete-climate-4-240x320 Head of the municipality ‘Sennoi District’ Natalya Astakhova at the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation in St. Petersburg, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

– We’ve been cooperating with “Friends of the Baltic” since 2008. Thanks to them, we’ve become one of the “greenest” municipalities of the city.

– Meaning, Sennoi District is already adapting to climate change?

– Adaptation is a task before the government of St. Petersburg, which must develop and convey to us their proposals. Our task is a more modest one: education and involving those people who are open to it. For instance, when [mobile hazardous domestic waste collection points,] “ecomobiles” appeared [in the city], we started to promote them – on our website, in our newspaper, by word of mouth. Residents started bringing in their hazardous waste.

– Do you think consultations of this kind can change something?

– A hundred participants is not a small thing. They will tell what they heard to their acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives, the information will go further. A water drop begets an ocean. It’s commonly known that any new initiative must also come from the ground up. In October 2014, at a game we held during the European Local Democracy Week, we asked our schoolkids this question: Who is more important – a politician, a scientist, a businessman, someone who just lives in your community, a non-governmental organization? I liked what one boy said. He said: You can’t divide society into parts. If a scientist, or a politician, an official, a businessman, or a representative of the public don’t all come on board to solve a problem, there will be no results. So these consultations, what they do is join all layers of society to solve the problem.

Think globally – act locally

st-pete-climate-6-320x214 St. Petersburg, Russia, city center. (Photo:

Joining the many different voices is exactly what the global citizen consultation day did in St. Petersburg. Alas, St. Petersburg was the only Russian city that took part in the initiative, but on June 6, St. Petersburgers – much like their counterparts around the world – contributed to the global effort, a first of such scope, to find out what the world’s common citizen thinks of global warming and climate change.

According to the project’s website, participants were to express their views on an identical set of questions, designed to reflect policy controversies at the COP negotiations and political discussions about climate and energy in general. The results were published on the initiative’s website in real time, allowing, the website explains, “for easy exploration and comparisons of results; one country with another, developed countries with developing, etc.”

The focus group was selected based on a special methodology, said the St. Petersburg consultation’s organizer Olga Senova, who chairs the Interregional Non-Governmental Environmental Youth Organization “Friends of the Baltic.” The participants did not include climate experts, and the age, profession, education, and other criteria were overall on par with the characteristics of a statistically average focus group typical for Russia. And at the start of the discussion, the conversation about the global issue – how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – began with talking about very local, practically everyday things.

– I’ve always been trying to buy locally produced food when shopping. I think it’s more “ecologically clean,” – says Valentina, a pensioner, this common Russian description referring to what for many in the West would be best implied by “organic food” – naturally grown, non-chemically treated produce. – But I understand now: My choice is correct from the point of view of saving the climate. Because, for instance, less fuel is spent on delivering vegetables from local fields, and we’re “saving” on the emissions of exhaust fumes.

– And my family has lately taken to buying only toilet paper made of recycled material, – adds Anna, from the Environmental-Biological Center of Petrogradsky District’s Children’s Arts and Activity Center. – Recycled tissue means using less wood, as well as less electricity spent on producing wood pulp.

– If we start, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, to sort paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, plastic bags out of our garbage, sending it to recycling, we could close down one of the reactors of the Leningrad [Nuclear Power Plant], – says Yelena, an engineer. – Its energy would simply become unneeded. This calculation was made by experts at Greenpeace Russia.

st-pete-climate-7-320x240 Alexander, a high school physics and math teacher and one of the participants of the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation in St. Petersburg, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

– As a measure to reduce energy losses, I simply don’t watch TV, – Alexander, a high school physics and math teacher, says, smiling. – I am a strong supporter of the ideas of sustainable development.

– The most difficult thing is to turn society, which has made values of consumption its top priority, around toward economy and frugality, – chimes in Nataliya, an associate professor at the St. Petersburg Academy for Postgraduate Pedagogical Education. – A society where each individual will assert themselves solely as a consumer, will demand more and more comforts and gains, has no future.

– And now, let’s put ourselves in the politicians’ shoes, – suggests Anatoly, the moderator. – Governments depend on their voters. And if at the climate talks, they approve measures that lower the quality of life for the populations of their countries, won’t it spark a wave of public indignation? Not to mention the interests of transnational and national companies…

The climate negotiators, in other words, are between a rock and a hard place: the need, for the world community, to agree on tough climate actions, on the one hand, and the public’s consumer demands and businesses’ appetites, on the other.

A first of its kind

The consultation went on for six hours, with participants advancing from the easy enough questions such as “How concerned are you about the impacts of climate change?” and “In your opinion, who should primarily be responsible for tackling climate change?” to the trickier ones: for instance, “Which of the following approaches do you prefer for making large-scale cuts in greenhouse gas emissions?” or “After 2020, should high-income countries pay more than already agreed on for mitigation and adaptation in low-income countries ($100 billion in 2020)?” etc. Altogether, those gathered at the Ambassador hotel had to answer 30 questions of varying degrees of complexity.

Throughout the day, as they took stock of the discussions, the participants entered their opinions into the questionnaires. The voting results were published on the project’s website in real time. Thus, for the first time in the history of global climate negotiations, a sort of a public opinion matrix was formed, comprising the views of tens of thousands of people – citizens of different countries living in different climates and time zones.

st-pete-climate-8-320x240 Olga Senova, chair of the Interregional Non-Governmental Environmental Youth Organization “Friends of the Baltic,” at the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation in St. Petersburg, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

– It’s extremely important for the governments to understand to which extent the citizens of their countries are bothered by the topic of climate change, how deeply this concern has permeated public awareness, – says the St. Petersburg consultation’s organizer Olga Senova, of “Friends of the Baltic.” – After all, the proposals put forward by the leadership and business at the international forums must comport with the sentiments and expectations of common people.

And another advantage of such a project is the opportunity to take a good look at ourselves and learn something new.

How we are different …

As it turns out, altogether around a half of the consultation’s Russian participants – about 49 percent – are concerned by issues of climate change. Overall around the globe, this figure is 79 percent, almost a time and a half as much. Furthermore, the other half of the Russians whose opinion was taken that day are convinced that the problem is exaggerated.

A little less than 38 percent advocate increasing subsidies for renewable energy sources. The global average is 56 percent. This is notable, considering that in Russia, the level of renewable energy development is extremely low: The share of renewables in the Russian energy mix makes no more than 1.5 percent. By contrast, in Germany, renewable energy sources already in 2012 accounted for more than 20 percent of total power generated in the country, and in Belgium, that share is approaching a third in the total energy mix.

In what other ways are the Russian results distinct from those received globally? Fewer than 9 percent of St. Petersburgers believe that the government should stop subsidizing energy production based on fossil fuels. The worldwide average is twice as many. And over 40 percent of the Russian participants are in favor of increasing fossil fuel production. By contrast, 45 percent of the event’s participants from other countries demand that their governments gradually phase out the production of all fossil fuels.

Prior to June 6, 30 percent of the participants in St. Petersburg knew nothing about the global climate talks; the worldwide figure is 18 percent. By the end of the consultation, over 50 percent of those who attended the St. Petersburg meeting considered themselves informed about the issue, and 34 percent gave that answer globally. Additionally, over 81 percent of the St. Petersburg participants thought it necessary to continue raising people’s awareness and educating them about the problem in the future.

… and how we are the same

st-pete-climate-9-320x240 The focus group discussing climate change issues at the global World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen consultation in St. Petersburg, June 6, 2015. (Photo: Lina Zernova.)

In one of the results that brought the Russian audience closer to their counterparts globally, 62 percent of those who filled out the climate change questionnaires in St. Petersburg believe combating climate change is currently not a priority for our country – though it should be. This assessment of their national governments’ work was true for 46 percent of participants worldwide. In addition, 80 percent of the St. Petersburg participants believe Russia must take action to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions even if other countries refuse to do so. The same signal was sent to their climate talks representatives by 79 percent of those who answered this question in other countries. On this issue, in other words, citizens in all the countries that took part in the consultation were practically united in their response.

– The consultation’s results were presented to the participants of the [yearly intersessional] UN climate talks in [Germany’s] Bonn, – said WWF Russia’s Climate and Energy Program head Alexei Kokorin. – At first, there were questions regarding the representativeness of the population samples. But in the end, everyone agreed that these results can be trusted. It was also pointed out that certain questions are perceived differently by citizens from different countries. For instance, in Russia, subsidies for traditional energy sources are often understood by people as keeping the electricity and heating prices in check. That’s probably why only 9 percent of Russians are in favor of removing [the subsidies]. If the question were framed differently: “Do you think that state budget money should not be going to [Russia’s largest oil producers] Rosneft and Gazprom Neft for drilling in the Arctic?” – and this is the principal subsidy for our country, and, actually, a very controversial one, from the economic point of view – then this percentage would have been much higher.

Who will join St. Petersburg’s initiative?

– The citizen’s consultation showed that the Russians are ready and keen to discuss climate problems, – Senova, of “Friends of the Baltic,” sums up. – This sort of events are a useful aid for governments in climate negotiations.

– But they also help make the public better informed, they serve an educational mission, – said Senova. – Unfortunately, the consultation at the Ambassador hotel was the only one in Russia. But if other non-governmental organizations are found in our country that will be willing to hold one in other cities – Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnodar, Moscow, etc. – that’ll be just what’s needed.