He dances, he sings, he pilots planes and submarines, but even hardened cynics don’t know what to make of Vladimir Putin’s recent performance as an environmental conservationist.  In addition to hobnobbing with Leonardo DiCaprio to save tigers, the Russian Prime Minister has also recently joined the debate on alternative energy, or rather, the campaign against wind energy.

Windmills, which are so widespread in many European countries seem to be an environmentally friendly kind (of energy), but in fact they kill birds,” Putin said before a United Russia conference, quoted by Reuters.  Instead of these dangerous bird killing machines, whose vibrations “shake worms out of the ground” and create “a real environmental problem,” Putin is a big backer of geothermal energy, praising a cooperation project with Iceland to generate energy from geysers on the Kamchatka peninsula.  Of course others are worried that a geothermal energy development would ravage the pristine beauty of Kamchatka, much like the Khimki forest highway which was just shoved through for approval despite vociferous protests and at least two severely beaten journalists.

Putin seems to enjoy wearing the environmentalist hat though despite his contrary record, sporting the memes of the vanguard iconoclast, fighting against the man, big corporate, and Uncle Sam.  But at the end of the day, he’s a petro populist with a strong interest in the world’s continuing use of fossil fuels, and especially Europe’s reliance on natural gas to power their combine cycle generation needs. 

And he’s not alone out there.  Just a year ago, Venezuelan PresidentHugo Chavez was invited to speak at the UN Climate Change Conference inCopenhagen, where he perfected his mantra “it’s not CO2 that’s changing the climate, it’s capitalism.”Despite his uplifting message to bring an end to climate change, many point out that Chavez’s actions speak louder than his words.  On Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro wrote:

“Instead of taxing oil consumption, Chávez has spent a decadesubsidizing it, making Venezuelan gasoline the cheapest in the planet.In fact, in real terms, gasoline is 85% cheaper in Venezuela today thanit was when Chávez came to power ten years ago. The price of a liter ofgas has not moved in ten years, while accumulated inflation is 655%.

This is a leader who subsidizes not just gas but car sales, a manwhose idea of foreign aid is giving cut-price fuel oil to people inBoston. A gallon of fuel in Caracas costs less than a lolly-pop…”

Fast forward to today, and we have Chavez leading his ALBA bloc to scupper the Cancun climate agreements, which represents not the first but still bizarre alignment of interests between the “revolutionary left” and big business interests.  The colorful leadership of Venezuela and Russia may enjoy talking up the climate change game, but their real service to the environment doesn’t extend beyond a mutually reinforcing fantasy. These transparentattempts to minimize the potential impact of sustainable energy are notunexpected. As two of the western world’s largest producers of naturalgas and petroleum, these leaders stand to lose substantial exportcommodity (and, potentially, personal income from the rents) should the world move toward greater commitments to alternative energy. 

It’s a reality that they aren’t too comfortable with no matter how many Hollywood photo shoots they get to enjoy.