Russia and Climate Change: A Looming Threat

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The historic climate change mitigation agreement reached in Paris by 195 countries on December 12, 2015 was made possible by the willingness of formerly recalcitrant actors like China, India and the United States to agree to multilateral, binding emissions targets. To a casual observer, Russia might appear to be a member of this group of reformed skeptics. Moscow submitted an official climate action plan to the UN on May 31, 2015, well in advance of the Paris Conference, surprising observers (including the U.S. State Department’s lead climate negotiator, Todd Stern) who were mindful of Russia’s historically skeptical attitude regarding the necessity of international action on climate change. Russian President Vladimir Putin followed up the submission with a forceful speech at the Paris conference, declaring, “The quality of life of all people on this planet depends on… our ability to resolve the problem of climate.”

However, this seemingly activist posture (likely designed to prevent further international isolation after Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria have drawn Western sanctions and widespread condemnation) masks the reality that there has been no substantive change in Russia’s attitude toward climate change or willingness to act decisively to address the issue. While the climate action plan appeared to be a positive development, analysts quickly pointed out that Russia’s submission, which calls for a 30 percent emissions reduction below 1990-levels, could actually allow Russia to increase its emissions, which are currently 35 percent below 1990-levels (due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of its carbon-intensive economy). Climate activists also called on Moscow to clarify how Russia plans to use its vast forests, which act as a “carbon sink,” in its overall emissions accounting. These activists have pointed out that under an emissions accounting scheme that relies heavily on the “carbon sink” effect of Russian forests, the country would have to actually reduce its carbon emissions by even less than the nominal targets outlined in the plan. Russian officials have indicated that they intend to rely heavily on the “carbon sink” effect on Russian forests in order to reach the targets in the plan, meaning that the practical effect of the plan is essentially negligible.

Accordingly, rhetorical shifts notwithstanding, there appears to have been no significant change in Moscow’s attitude toward climate change. While Putin has recently paid lip service to the pressing urgency of action, Russia’s climate action plan is indicative of continued official insouciance about climate change. At a time when most of the international community is increasingly unified around the necessity of action to mitigate the worst effects of global warming, Russia remains an outlying skeptic.

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Why So Skeptical?

Moscow’s reluctance to join the increasingly unified international community in agreeing on meaningful emission reduction targets is attributable to several factors. The official Russian posture of skepticism toward the science underlying fears of climate change is largely due the country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels. According to the prominent Russian ecologist Alexey Yablokov, “We only think about drilling for more and more oil and selling it to the West.” Putin himself has acknowledged apparent changes in the Earth’s climate, but has dismissed the notion that human activity was to blame and characterized the notion of anthropogenic global warming as a “fraud.” Russian reluctance to see the world phase out fossil fuel-based energy likely explains Putin’s skepticism and “devil may care” attitude toward climate change (he once scoffed that Russians would have to spend less on fur coats in the future due to global warming). Moscow’s officially skeptical position mirrors that of other oil-reliant economies, including the states of the Persian Gulf, and has been dutifully adopted by the Russian media.

Beyond Russia’s wariness of any international action that might limit demand for fossil fuels, however, the Kremlin also appears to see potential benefits arising from climate change. According to some projections, countries far north of the Equator, like Canada and Russia, could benefit from warming temperatures, as enormous swathes of perpetually frozen, barren territory are transformed into arable land and the extraction of mineral resources farther north of the Arctic Circle becomes possible. Russia has aggressively staked its claims in the Arctic territory in anticipation of further melting. Putin has also repeatedly alluded to projections that Russian agriculture could benefit from climate change, remarking in 2003, “Agricultural specialists say our grain production will increase, and thank God for that.” This prediction is cited often by Russian officials seeking to downplay the potentially negative effects of climate change.

However, this limited and optimistic view appears misguided. It is increasingly clear that climate change is likely to adversely affect Russia in several ways, from severe weather events to territorial loss to growing instability on the country’s southern periphery and in its major cities.

Mixed Effects on Agriculture

Notwithstanding the predictions of Putin’s “agricultural specialists,” it is far from clear that the effect of climate change on Russian farmers will be unambiguously positive. While historically non-arable regions in Siberia could indeed see their agricultural productivity increase, regions in the south and west of Russia that are currently arable are likely to be increasingly affected by drought, wildfire, and changing irrigation patterns, a process that is already under way.

Analysts have suggested that the melting of permafrost in Russia’s far north could alter river flow patterns sufficiently to create water shortages in Stavropol and Krasnodar, historically the country’s most productive agricultural regions. Consequently, while Siberia becomes newly fertile, the country’s traditional breadbasket in the Volga River basin could become arid. Additionally, the rising incidence of drought and wildfire associated with climate change could be devastating for agricultural production in western Russia. In 2010, unprecedented summer heat caused massive wildfires that dramatically reduced agricultural output in western Russia, destroying one third of the country’s wheat harvest (the resulting export ban on wheat may have helped touch off the Arab Spring by raising food prices). The country experienced another major heat wave with a devastating impact on agricultural output in the summer of 2012, suggesting that this pattern is likely to continue and intensify as global temperatures rise. Accordingly, any gains in agricultural productivity farther north could be offset by drought and wildfire in southern and western Russia and by the effect of melting permafrost on the country’s irrigation patterns, confounding any hopes of increased grain production.

Second, Russia’s proximity to the Arctic Circle and long northern coastline make the country unusually vulnerable to rising sea levels and consequent erosion. As the permafrost in northern Russia retreats and sea levels rise, the country is reportedly losing 468 square kilometers to erosion every year. This trend, worrying in its own right, is likely to accelerate as global temperatures continue to rise. Scientists have further cautioned that the effect of climate change on the permafrost in Russia’s northern territories could have devastating effects on regional ecological systems (including wildlife) and on crucial infrastructure, including roads, rail lines, and oil and gas pipelines. The potential harm resulting from melting permafrost in northern Russia has been vividly illustrated by the sudden appearance of massive, unexplained craters in Siberia; scientists have concluded that these craters formed as a result of subterranean permafrost melt and the consequent collapse of underground geological formations.

A Southern Arc of Instability

Finally, Russia will be no less affected than any other country by adverse climate-related developments beyond its borders. Changes in the climate are likely to increase resource competition and conflict throughout the world; many analysts have pointed to the Syrian Civil War, which was triggered by a drought-induced humanitarian crisis, as an example of this phenomenon. Climate change is expected to have particularly negative effects in South and Central Asia, meaning that violence, instability, and mass refugee movements along Russia’s southern periphery could increase as global temperatures rise.

The potential for climate change-related phenomena to spark conflict and refugee movements along Russia’s southern periphery should be a cause for concern in Moscow. Russian officials clearly view instability in Central Asia as a significant threat, not least due to the possibility that radical extremists could find safe haven in the weak states and ungoverned spaces of the region. Moscow has warily eyed the possibility of spillover from the war in Afghanistan, and reacted to the Taliban capture of the northern city of Kunduz by reinforcing the already considerable Russian military presence in Tajikistan. Senior Kremlin officials have referred repeatedly to the danger of Islamist militant groups using Afghanistan as a base to attack Russia and Central Asia. In short, Moscow is clearly concerned that the war in Afghanistan is destabilizing surrounding states and views any such instability as a threat to Russian interests.

Given this perception of the threat to Russia from an unstable Central Asia, Russia’s official attitude toward climate change is perplexing. Several of the states of Central Asia are already quite weak, and are routinely listed among the world’s most unstable countries in Foreign Policy’s Fragile States Index. Scientific projections suggest that Central Asia could suffer significantly from climate change. The region is already confronting a significant water scarcity problem, which has been worsened by irresponsible policymakers; warming temperatures will likely exacerbate this issue. Several studies project increased land degradation and diminished water supplies in Central Asia if global temperatures continue to climb, both of which would devastate agriculture and disproportionately affect the poorest segments of the region’s population. These trends could further destabilize weak states like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, creating the security vacuums and extremist safe havens that Moscow is so keen to avoid.

Additionally, increased migration from Central Asia could adversely affect Russia’s internal social cohesion and stability. Recent years have seen an ever-rising tide of chauvinistic nationalism in Russia, a trend that will only accelerate as economic malaise deepens. Russian politicians have portrayed labor migrants from Central Asia as “parasites” and threats for years; accordingly, an influx of migrants at a time of ongoing economic stagnation and insecurity could be socially toxic and potentially explosive.

Given Russia’s ongoing reliance on fossil fuels (which has only deepened in recent years despite half-hearted attempts at economic diversification) and the likelihood that Putin (not known for his malleable opinions) will remain in power for the foreseeable future, Moscow’s fundamental attitude toward climate change appears unlikely to shift. In light of the potential consequences of climate change for Russia, the country’s citizens should hope that the efforts of other nations to address this most consequential international problem are successful.

Quentin Buckholz is an MIA candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  He was previously a senior analyst at a strategic risk advisory firm in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in World Politics Review.

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