Russia’s Climate Change Quandary

Today it is not enough to study glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice… Permafrost soil is a very decisive piece of the puzzle in worldwide climate events and there’s no place in the world that it’s so widespread as in Russia.

— Global Environmental Society

According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, Russia “has the potential to gain the most from increasingly temperate weather.” ((Serge Korepin, Might Russia Welcome Global Warming? Center for Strategic & International Studies, Aug. 11, 2008. ))

Russia is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, America, and India and according to Andrew Light, Director of the Center for Global Ethics, “no climate deal will likely succeed without real participation from Russia.”

No country in the world benefits by global warming as much as Russia, which is the coldest country in the world. Most of Russia’s mainland is continental sub arctic with annual temperatures of below zero C. In fact, most of Russia’s land (over two-thirds) is permafrost, which remains frozen year round with the exception of the top layer. The resulting problem of working in permafrost is a sharp drop-off in the efficiency of human and machinery work. It has been estimated that in an average year total economic losses to cold amounts to 33% of possible working time in the Soviet north. Additionally, there are major costs associated with the cold for heat as well as snow and ice removal.

Treasure Trove of Natural Resources

Russia’s great treasure trove of natural resources are mostly located in the sub Arctic, and fortunately for Russia, as a result of global warming, the permafrost boundary is moving northward, already up 25 miles in European Russia and 50 miles near the Urals. Thus, the consequence of global warming makes extraction of resources much easier, less costly. Otherwise, in normal permafrost regions heavy machinery can only be used three to four months per year, where Russia has her vast resources of tin, gold, nickel, cobalt, copper, diamonds, and oil and gas Additionally, the warming trend opens up new land for agricultural purposes.

Furthermore, Russia is one of the world’s principal traders, and the opening up of the sea routes because of an ice-free Arctic will save the country hundreds of millions of rubles every year. Predictions are the Northern Sea Route, by 2020, will carry 65 million tons versus hundreds of thousands of tons now.

Rinat Gizatullin, of the Russian Natural Resources Ministry, told BBC: “We are not panicking. Global warming is not as catastrophic for us as it might be for some other countries. If anything, we’ll be even better off.”

For example, on January 15, 2013 Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich informed journalists that Rosneft and Gazprom, the state-controlled energy companies, are receiving licenses to develop the Arctic continental shelf sectors. ((Global Warming Opening Up Russian’s Arctic Oil, UPI, January 2013.)) And, already, as of March 2012, Russian oil production of 10.37 million barrels per day exceeds that of Saudi Arabia.

An ice-free Arctic may be one of Russia’s wildest dreams come true because of the likelihood of substantial hydrocarbon reserves opened up for exploration, and regardless of radical climate change as the reason for opening up of the Arctic, Russia’s authorities, e.g., Boris Rezhabek, Director of the Institute of Noospheric Development and Research, says: “I won’t deny the existence of climate changes. The temperature rises and falls here and there. The geological history offers proof of this. However, to say that this is caused by human activities or is the result of anthropogenic phenomena is non-scientific. Temperature ups and downs are a natural phenomenon.” ((Svetlana Kalmykova, Abnormal Frosts During Global Warming, Voice of Russia, Jan. 16, 2013.))

Meanwhile, some of Russia’s other top scientists have a different take on climate change; according to P. Gosselin, ((Scientists of the Russian Academy of Science: Global Warming is Coming to an End – Return to Early 1980s Level, Voice of Russian, May 21, 2012.)) Russia’s top scientists say global warming is ending. The scientists from the Physics University of the Russian Academy of Science claim the coming years will experience a cooling trend, and they claim the process has already begun, and they claim temperatures peaked in 2005.

Thus, confusion reigns supreme amongst Russia’s scientific community, which normally adheres to a uniformity of opinion. As recently as three months ago, some other Russian scientists claimed the Russian Arctic is losing ice cover and being inhabited by species from the south. ((Scientists say new Signs of Global Warming in Russian Arctic, Phys. Org, Nov. 21, 2012.)) The scientists spent three months in the Arctic, observing: “Colonies of these birds are generally seen more to the south and without question were brought to the Arctic by global warming…” This is one of many observations that convinced them that global warming is directly impacting Russia’s great hinterlands.

Regardless of the consequences of climate change, Russia is dead serious about development of natural resources in the Arctic. In 2009 Russia announced plans to deploy a dedicated military force to protect its interests in the oil-rich polar region. In fact, Russia’s efforts on the North Pole have been assigned to the former KGB, which is now Moscow’s Intelligent Services. In August 2007, Russian explorers “claimed” the Arctic’s resources by planting the Russian flag 14,000’ beneath the North Pole, dropping a rustproof titanium banner from a three-man submarine. Russian media heralded the event as comparable to the first moon landing.

Russia at Doha

Russia’s idiosyncratic approach to climate change raised its head at the Doha (“COP18”) talks in December 2012, as Russian chief negotiator Oleg Shamanov complained to the plenary body that he had not been consulted about the texts under discussion, and Russia declined to take part in an extension of Kyoto, stating, “The way those decisions were adopted, extremely seriously undermines the legitimacy of the regime and trust between the participants.” ((UN Climate Chief Dismisses Russian ‘Hot-Air’ Protest in Doha, RTCC (Responding to Climate Change), Dec. 10, 2012.))

Since COP18 (aka: the 18th Conference of the Parties) is widely viewed as a prelude to COP19 next year, Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists, had this to say: “There were some winners here. The coal industry won here. The oil industry won here. The fossil fuel industry won here. You saw on display the power of these industries and their short-term profit motivation to dominate the governments of the world. This wasn’t an environmental or science driven discussion. This was a trade fair.”

Contrariwise, one would think the dramatic performance of climate change over the past few years would have motivated the participants, but as Alden Meyer so aptly stated, COP18 was a “trade fair” for the fossil fuel industry, and at the end of the day, Russia took a pass.

Russia’s Emissions and Policy

According to Adnan Vatansever, ((A Climate Vision for Russia: From Rhetoric to Action, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012.)) since 1990 the world’s total emissions increased by 43%. By comparison, Russia’s carbon emissions decreased by 34% below 1990 levels, and Russian officials have presented this as evidence of their leadership role in mitigation of climate change. However, the international community is not impressed. Russia’s reductions were not the result of focused policies. Rather, the decrease resulted from the economic decline that followed the country’s transition to a market economy after the collapse of the old Soviet system. By 1998, when the Russian economy hit bottom, energy use was one-third lower than ten years earlier.

Meanwhile, Russia’s per capita carbon emissions of 12 tonnes are nearly three times the world average. Furthermore, Russia’s economy is the most energy intensive of the G20 countries at three times the intensity level of the European Union average.

“The Kremlin’s choice boils down to political will — and whether climate change is considered important enough — and to its ability to engage in serious strategic thinking and policy preparation. That would be something new from Russia in the field of climate policy.” ((Adnan Vatansever, A Climate Vision for Russia: From Rhetoric to Action, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012. ))

The Future for Russia and Climate Change

The threats from climate change in the years ahead will likely impact Russia much more than any other major economic power. “With its millions of hectares of boreal forests, vast supplies of fresh water, and rich stores of gas, oil, and other natural resources, Russia is a study in complex and fragile ecosystems. And with more than two-thirds of those ecosystems based on frozen ground, or permafrost, Russia is expected to experience some the earliest and most dramatic effects of climate change — almost all of them bad.” ((Professor Anatoly Shvidenko, Acting Leader of IIASA (Integrated Land Information System), Russia Faces Tough Climate Change Challenges, Ecosystems Services and Mgmt. Program, 2009.)) These studies show East Siberia and other northern tier regions of Russia are particularly susceptible “…likely to experience the most dramatic climate change on the globe.”

Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is hoping to limit the Earth’s average warming to 2 degrees C by mid century, models predict a 6-10 degree C increase for vast territories of Northern Eurasia, including much of Siberia. Concurrently, water supplies in vast areas of the region may decrease significantly and lead to explosive acceleration of natural disturbances, particularly wildfires and outbreaks of insect infestation and a significant increase in the desertification of the steppes.

According to Shvidenko, “What is under way in Russia in terms of ecological changes due to climate change combined with poor management of natural resources is a ‘crisis’.”

Putin’s Kremlin versus Obama’s White House

Meanwhile, back at the Kremlin, Putin is actually supporting a climate change study operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute near the Laptev Sea in Northern Siberia, including German and Russian scientists which study found the summer thaw reached a depth of 56 centimeters. The ground in the region had never thawed so deep. Putin instructed the Duma to allocate funds for construction of a modern station building.

Today it is not enough to study glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice… Permafrost soil is a very decisive piece of the puzzle in worldwide climate events and there’s no place in the world that it’s so widespread as in Russia… Overall, around a quarter of the mainland areas of our Earth is covered by permanently frozen ground. In central northern Siberia the soil consists of 80 to 90% ice and may be frozen down to a depth of over 1500 metres. The scientists are interested in what happens when this ice thaws due to global warming. One reason for this is that enormous amounts of methane lie in the permafrost and may be released by a further rise in temperature—with far-reaching consequences for the environment and civilization ((.Putin Supports Climate Change Study, Global Environmental Society (“GES”).))

In July 2011, Putin called for an international consensus on greenhouse gas emissions. Regarding the Kyoto protocol, he said, “We will continue the talks, because I personally think that the global community should go to the end and agree on common rules in this sphere, without shifting the burden to anybody else, but sharing it,” ((Putin Calls for Global Climate Consensus, UPI, July 15, 2011.))

In the US, the Bush administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol.

Post-Bush: Professor Robert RM Verchick, former Obama administration deputy associate administrator for policy at the US EPA, who served on Obama’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force strongly believes America made a “big mistake” when it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement signed by 191 countries in 1997 establishing binding obligations on the industrialized countries to reduce emissions. “America pulling out of the Kyoto protocol was not just a big mistake in terms of global relations and moral obligations, it was also a lost business opportunity.” ((Subhro Nigogi, US’s Kyoto Exit a Big Mistake: Former Obama Government Official, Times of India, Dec, 6, 2012.))

In contrast, Putin appears to have an ear for climate change, but what about Obama? According to John Podesta: “He knows the judgment of history is riding on this.” And, according to Rolling Stone magazine, Obama told a former White House staffer after the election, “I want to do something on climate… but I don’t know what.” Additionally, a climate activist who visited the White House in December was told by Heather Zichal, the White House adviser on energy and climate, “that the president has no plans to propose any climate legislation to Congress, knowing the House Republicans would shoot it down.” ((Jeff Goodell, Obama’s Climate
Challenge, Rolling Stone, Jan. 17, 2013.)) “Making real progress on global warming would require Obama to do something he has shown little inclination for: leading a massive grassroots campaign to rally the American people and overcome the fear-mongering of the fossil-fuel industry and its Republican allies.”

Perhaps Russia’s politics aren’t so bad after all.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.