Kremlin Moscow in the snow

Book review: ‘Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change’

Image credit: Pavel Losevsky/Dreamstime

Why one of the countries most responsible for climate change also stands to suffer the greatest damage from it.

As I write these lines, one of the main news items in the British media is the spate of forest fires in Yakutia, also known as the Republic of Sakha. Ironically, this vast ‘autonomous’ territory in the far east of Russia is home to one of the world’s coldest permanently inhabited human settlements – the town of Oymyakon, where in winter temperatures routinely plunge below -60°C. Alas, this kind of sad irony is typical of many things Russian.

In mid-August 2021, when I was reading an advance review copy of 'Klimat…', the fires had already torn through more than 4.2 million hectares of forest in Yakutia, sending enormous plumes of smoke as far as the North Pole and producing a record amount of carbon emissions, according to the European Union's Copernicus satellite monitoring unit. The Guardian referred to the ongoing disaster as an ‘apocalypse’, no less.

However, for Thane Gustafson, professor of government at Georgetown University and author of ‘Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change’ (Harvard University Press, £31.95, ISBN 9780674247437), the Yakutia catastrophe came as no surprise. In his lively, informative and extremely timely analysis of climate change and its effects on Russia, he stresses repeatedly that while being one of the main culprits responsible for global climate change, the country is also destined to eventually become one of its main victims. Large areas of Arctic permafrost covering a huge chunk of Siberia are destined to melt, he warns, leading – among other destructive phenomena – to frequent droughts and forest fires.

Gustafson’s dire predictions, it seems, have already started to come true. Let’s ask ourselves why it is so important to monitor Russia’s attitudes to climate change.

The answer is grievously obvious - not only because Russia, even after losing a lot of territory as a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, remains by far the world’s vastest country, spanning eleven time zones. And not just because her enormous reserves of oil and gas exceed those of Saudi Arabia. Primarily, it’s due to the fact that she continues shooting herself in the foot by being the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

As Gustafson rightly observes, the prevailing Russian attitude to climate change has always been that of “ambiguity” – a trend that has increased considerably under Putin, who in his speeches routinely keeps calling for a vigorous response to the threat, yet announces “no specific measures,” while “most Russians remain largely uninformed” about it.

As for the Russian president’s own opinions on climate change, as Gustafson aptly points out, they have been greatly influenced by a certain Sergei Ivanov – Putin’s old-time St Petersburg buddy, who is presently a member of the Security Council and a ‘grey cardinal’ of Kremlin politics. Ivanov is also a staunch conservative and a notorious climate-change sceptic, who in a 2017 television interview referred to the global warming as ”nothing, just nothing.”

Little wonder, therefore, that in the burgeoning business of global renewables Russia remains an outsider, still relying heavily on oil and gas. Take the rising giant of offshore wind technology, where Russia, as Gustafson remarks, “is absent from the scene”. True, as many Western observers have noted, clusters of wind turbines that have become ubiquitous in many parts of the world are conspicuous by their absence from Russia’s boundless land and seascapes.

With his undisputed predictive powers, what future does Gustafson forecast for the post-Putin Russia of 2050?

His prognosis is comprehensive and detailed, but to reveal all of it here would be too much of a spoiler. I will only say that, contrary to what you might have thought, Gustafson remains mildly optimistic in his belief that climate change will eventually (and inevitably) become a benefit for Russia and will “galvanise Russian society into action”. By 2050, he believes, the Russian people will face “a great reckoning.”

However, that will only happen, he says, provided “the ingrained tendency of Russian officialdom to make the state great by making the people small – and themselves wealthy” is overcome once and for all.

I am happy to add my humble ‘hope against hope’ (an age-old Russian concept) to Gustafson’s cautious optimism.

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