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Analysis & Opinion
20.08.10 Will Forest Fires Change Russia’s Climate Policy?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger

The unprecedented forest and peat bog fires this summer have caused massive disruption, resulted in more than fifty deaths, and shaved perhaps a whole percentage point off Russia's annual GDP growth this year. But could they also cause a change in attitudes to climate change, both among the Russian public and within the Russian political class? What implications might a proactive Russia have on the global climate debate, domestic politics, environmental movements and its image abroad?

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said in a public speech two weeks ago that recent extreme weather conditions in Russia’s central regions are evidence of global climate change. "This means that we need to change the way we work, and change the methods that we used in the past," he added. Medvedev called for these events to act as a wake-up call to heads of state and social organizations to take a more energetic approach to countering global climate change.

These are rather bold statements from a Russian leader on climate change, which Medvedev's predecessor Vladimir Putin and his economic advisor Andrei Illarionov denied even existed just a few years ago. Putin even suggested at a G8 meeting that climate change and global warming, if proven to be true, could actually be good for Russia – resulting in milder winters and lowering heating fuel consumption. He obviously did not consider scorching summer heat waves.

President Medvedev has taken steps in the last year to promote a more pro-active climate policy for his country, rolling out a "climate doctrine" and urging the Russian government to back the doctrine with new laws and regulations. This in itself constitutes a reversal of one of Medvedev's own statements, issued in late 2008 on the eve of climate talks in Copenhagen. He said that Russia should not and would not agree to international climate regulations that could put limits on Russia's industrial emissions and consequently impede Russia's economic growth. Russian climate policy has traditionally been shoved on the back burner, as public pressure to act remained low, and climate change skepticism abounded.

But the unprecedented forest and peat bog fires this summer that have caused massive disruption and resulted in more than fifty deaths, while shaving perhaps a whole percentage point off Russia's annual GDP growth this year, may cause a change in attitudes to climate change, both among the Russian public and within the Russian political class. The fires of 2010 have made climate change both a social and a political issue in Russia.

Unprecedented wildfires in Russia could contribute to global climate change, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Russia report released last week. "There exists a two-way link between the growing number of fires and climate change. The growing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to an imbalance of the climate system, including an increase in the number and duration of "heat waves," which, in turn, contribute to the growth in the number of fires. On the other hand, the emission of carbon dioxide from forest fires is one of the important impacts on climate. There emerges a ‘vicious circle.’ Greater carbon dioxide emissions will lead to a warmer climate with more droughts, which, in turn, will exacerbate the threat of fires," the report read.

Will the tragic events of the summer of 2010 spur concrete action on introducing more ambitious domestic climate change policies in Russia? Will it change Moscow's overall position at international climate change negotiations toward a more proactive stance to limiting carbon emissions? Could the recent fire rampage in Russia accelerate awareness globally of the dangers of climate change? Might the fires actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise, or even an inspiration for Russia's new definition of its "national idea?" Could climate change become a vital part of President Medvedev's modernization platform and prospective presidential bid in 2012? If so, what implications might a proactive Russia have on the global climate debate, domestic politics, environmental movements and its image abroad?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc. (USA), San Francisco, CA:

Global climate change is a challenge that requires a multi-layer response from humanity.

On the supranational level most of the global community, including Russia, but excluding the United States, are signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. This is a major step toward the curtailment of emissions that at the bare minimum contribute to climate change. Therefore, it seems unfair to suggest that Russia's national government policy is ex principio disregarding the problem. Such an imputation could be much more appropriately directed at the leadership of the United States.

Like all democratic counties, Russia's government must constitutionally protect the needs and interests of its citizens. No country can accept a unilateral reduction of its economic activities without a mandatory international framework for symmetrical self-restraint by all members of the international community. Russia is no exception from this axiom and
it is unreasonable to expect it to behave any differently than the EU, China or the United States.
Self-restraint that does not include all parties will not effectively address the problem. Global climate change is an issue that affects everyone and requires all-inclusive participation.

On the domestic level, Russia faces several special challenges, which are the legacy of 70 years of Soviet misrule.
For example, the smoke that choked Moscow for two weeks was due to peat fires, which broke out in former marshes, drained in the 1940s as part of predatory, ecologically destructive Soviet economic practices.
Another problem is the culture of mild anarchy and disregard for law and order, which was instilled by the arbitrariness of the Soviet legal system and the blatant disregard for inconvenient rules – a Soviet mechanism colloquially called "telefonnoye pravo" (legislation by phone).

Very recently, in the wake of wildfires, villagers caught arsonists in the act of starting new fires; in other areas, individuals who had barely managed to keep their hamlets from burning down were starting fires in their own backyards to get rid of dried up vegetation. This culture of infantile irresponsibility is one of the most insidious problems in Russian society today. I’m not suggesting that such irresponsibility is exclusive to Russians and to Russia, most countries demonstrate this as well, but it is nevertheless quite dangerous.

Finally, the Soviet legacy of neglected infrastructure in the “glubinka” (provinces), was definitely a factor in the spread of, and difficulty in, combating the wildfires.

Considering the scale and violence of the conflagrations, Russia's response was well organized and effective. Although thousands of hectares of forests burned, the loss of life, displacement of victims and damage to property were contained – thanks to the responsiveness and organization of Russian authorities. Large population centers were threatened by wildfires, yet not one was significantly damaged. The impact of the smoke on Moscow and the consequences of the heat wave were spectacular, but it is doubtful whether any government anywhere would have been more effective in dealing with these problems.

Non-specialists perhaps do not appreciate the scale of the achievement of delivering many thousands of fire-fighters, with equipment and operational logistics into remote locations, accessible only over very rugged terrain. And promises to help the victims are now being fulfilled in real time.

In summary, Russia's international climate policy was already constructive and protective regarding climate change. In the future, Russia's ability to achieve more internationally will depend on the ability of the global community to further enhance a global response to an increasingly significant challenge.

Domestically we can expect Russia to take a "lessons learned" approach and make improvements to governance, infrastructure, and public awareness. The latter objective will be especially challenging, as it has also proven to be difficult to get the public onboard in many other countries. The United States has a permanent program of raising public awareness of forest fires, yet wildfires still devastate forests, kill people and wipe out homes every summer.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

In recent years, the Russian political leadership has been consistently inconsistent in their thinking about the implications of climate change. In 1999, the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring issued a proposed "action plan" including various measures to increase energy efficiency and reduce pollution. I have not seen any reports about whether the Russian government has adopted the plan and if so, which of the proposed actions it has undertaken. My sense is that if it approved the plan, it largely remains unimplemented.

Alexander Bedritsky, a senior science advisor to the Russian government, has indicated that he believes that weather conditions – high temperatures and drought – are probably manifestations of climate change, which created the conditions that led to the massive fires in Russia this summer. A recent ITAR-TASS report seems to indicate that this is also the current view at the top levels of the Russian government. Bedritsky believes that the recent floods in Pakistan as well as extremely high temperatures in Europe in 2003, which contributed to the deaths of an estimated 15,000 people in France alone, may also reflect climate change. It is worth noting that this is still a debated subject. According to a story in the Christian Science Monitor, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University are not entirely convinced that this is the case.

Perhaps the leading foreign expert on the consequences of Russian energy policy on the environment is David Burwell, the director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment. He recognizes that climate change and ecological issues in general may have a devastating impact on Russia if appropriate actions are not taken in the near future. His views echo those of Murray Feshbach, the leading Western demographer on Russia and author of the 1993 book "Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege."

Undoubtedly, Russia's current drought combined with the devastation caused by the forest fires has grabbed the attention of the Russian people and its political leadership. Both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have gone on the record to support the need for global action on climate change, but when it comes to asking Russian enterprises and individuals to make genuine sacrifices, they have been reluctant to act decisively.

Nothing focuses attention on a problem like a disaster. While both Medvedev and Putin are likely to engage in "spin control" and blame placing, I would presume that the Russian president has a better appreciation of the problem than does his mentor, whose closer and long-standing ties to the country's largest polluters (industrial enterprises) are well-known.

Ironically, in the long-term, there are numerous ways that Russia could benefit from global warming: it might be easier to tap its energy resources (much of which is difficult to extract due to ice and frozen terrain) and a larger share of its land might be available for agriculture. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that in the near-to-short term, the fires will prove costly in many respects. They have destroyed nearly a quarter of the country's grain crop and inflicted damage that will take many years to overcome. In addition, the heavy human toll is incalculable.

Furthermore, they are a reminder of the consequences of the government's priorities. Medvedev apparently had not learnt from Putin's political blunder after the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, failing to immediately return from his vacation. Both Medvedev and Putin are trying to show that they are men of action. The prime minister taking control of an airplane to allow him to see the devastation may make for good television, but it does not address certain problems, many of which occurred on his watch. It is inconceivable that public confidence in the current system would not plummet - irrespective of what polls might indicate.

It is far from certain that Russia can both deal with the devastation and take appropriate steps in the future without the financial and technical support of the West and China. Russia needs to be more flexible when negotiating the future of the Arctic to set the proper tone for international cooperation. Ask yourself whether the more belligerent Putin or the more amicable Medvedev is more likely to be able to obtain such assistance. If one were to engage in speculation, one might wonder if the fires have not only literally altered the Russian landscape, but that of the political system as well.
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