Late Soviet Assessments on International Organizations and Climate Change – Two Documents From Russian Archives
While there is a growing number of insightful studies on Soviet and Russian debates and attitudes on climate change, we still know relatively little about how the nascent climate change diplomacy was evaluated internally by Soviet actors.
Two documents emanating from the Soviet State Committee for Hydrometeorology (Goskomgidromet) located in the Russian State Economic Archives in Moscow (Rossiĭskiĭ Gosudarstvennyĭ Arkhiv Ėkonomiki – RGAĖ) shed some light on internal Soviet assessments on how international organizations were and should be dealing with the topic of climate change. These two documents are intriguing not least by their ostensible contradictoriness.
Both sources deal with the role of the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) in researching and proposing solutions to climate change. In an internal report on Soviet participation in WMO activities during the year 1988, an unnamed author stated:
“in the framework of the WMO, there appears quite clearly a difference in the interests of various groups of countries […]. In the group of Western countries, a growing interest in the activity of the WMO on the problem of climate change and, to a certain degree, in dealing with air pollution, is detectable. In this [pri ėtom] the Western states pay more and more attention to the elaboration of an international strategy on how to react to climate change – a question which, strictly speaking, goes beyond the traditional frames of activities of the WMO. […]”
Judging from this source extract, it seems clear that Soviet actors saw the WMO’s growing concern with climate change as a specific Western agenda, and problematic as such.
However, in an internal report on Soviet participation in a session of the WMO’s Bureau – an advisory body to the WMO’s executive council – in Argentina in March 1989, the Soviet representatives Yuri Izraėl’, Head of Goskomgidromet, and Yu. L. Golubev, Izraėl’’s assistant, stated the following:
“Recognizing the importance of considering in the third long term plan such problems like […] the supposed considerable climate changes, the reducing of the ozone layer, [and] acid rain […], the Bureau proposed to the General Secretary, on the initiative of the representatives of the USSR, to prepare a working document for the regular 41st session of the executive council of the WMO, in which these questions would not only be asked, but [in which] there would be also ways and methods suggested to widen the participation of the WMO in the solution of the abovementioned problems.
Meanwhile, the representative of the USSR expressed [his] concern regarding the discernable tendency of a weakening of the position of the WMO in such traditional directions of its activity as the study and monitoring of the ozone layer and of climatic research. The current moment demonstrates how other international organizations (UNEP) [the United Nations Environment Programme (B.B.)] grasp the initiative from the WMO on these important questions, which raise the concern [trevogu] of the world community.
The USSR representative pointed out to the General Secretary his [the latter’s] insufficiently active role regarding these questions, especially in the light of the ‘centripetal’ positions of representatives of the USA and some other countries in the Intergovernmental expert group on climate change and acting persons of this institution. The Bureau agreed with this critique and called on the General Secretary to reinforce the efforts of the WMO in the activity on this important problem [climate change], [thereby] attaining a heightening of the authority and prestige of the organization, which would correspond to its historic predestination. […]”
If we follow this report, it was the Soviet representative Izraėl’ who pushed for a more active role of the WMO on the topic of climate change, including on how to deal with it – against a worrying tendency of a weakening of the WMO’s role in this regard, for which Western (American) actors were to blame. How can we make sense of these seemingly remarkable contradictions in internal Soviet reports produced almost at the same time?
It could be thought that the solution can be found in internal Soviet disputes on the role the WMO should take in climate change matters. However, this explanation is highly unlikely given that both documents were produced by the Soviet Goskomgidromet. Yuri Izraėl’ was the undisputed head of this state agency, meaning that he must have approved both documents.
By contrast, the key to the answer lies apparently in the short time gap between the two documents and in the subclause “especially in the light of the ‘centripetal’ positions of representatives of the USA and some other countries in the Intergovernmental expert group on climate change and acting persons of this institution.” The IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – was set up in 1988 together by the WMO and the UNEP, and it was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in December 1988. The Soviet Union had taken part in this decision process and Yuri Izraėl’ took the position of the head of one of the three working groups of this new organization, Working Group II, dealing with the potential socio-economic impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, the second document cited here bespeaks unsatisfaction and uneasiness of Soviet actors on how the newly created “intergovernmental expert group on climate change” was operating. This concerned both its quickly established leading role on climate change matters in the international arena – grasping “the initiative from the WMO on these important questions” –, and its alleged dominance by American and other Western actors, as perceived by the Soviet representatives. The reasons for this perception go beyond the scope of this blog article and must be explored in another text.
In any case, the two sources also display both a quickly evolving assessment by Soviet actors on the importance of climate change as a matter of concern “for the world community” and a willingness to take on a (co-)leading role in this regard. These are important insights which should be kept in mind when writing the history of the nascent international climate change regime and the Soviet Union’s as well as Russia’s role in it.
 RGAĖ, F. 8061, op. 11, d. 3520, l. 92, translation by the author (B.B.).
 RGAĖ, F. 8061, op. 11, d. 3764, ll. 18-19, translation and highlights by the author (B.B.).
Read more about Benjamin Beuerle and his work in our ‘People’ section.