Russia: the tinderbox in the struggle for a safe climate

Russia is at the forefront of the global climate change struggle. We ignore it at our peril.


Daniel Voskoboynik
20 September 2016

Russia may be home to some of the world's harshest living environments, but it's yet to wake up to the reality of climate change. (c) Sergey Dolya / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The Russian region of Yamal rarely makes global headlines. Despite being larger than France, its remote location bordering the Arctic Circle holds it far from the gaze of relevance. But in July this year, news of an outbreak of anthrax in the province shook the world. Seventy-two nomadic herders, including 41 children, were hospitalised after infection. One 12-year-old boy, and his grandmother, could not be saved.

The epidemic emerged from an unprecedented heatwave, after Siberia experienced temperatures nearing 35°C. Old spores of anthrax previously locked in the permafrost were unfrozen and exposed to grazing animals. Researchers have long warned that the melting of Siberian permafrost, triggered by climate change, could awaken dormant diseases trapped in preserved animal carcasses.

For a brief moment, the world’s environmental attention turned to Russia, a country largely overlooked in the discussion of climate impacts. 

Over decades, under the radar of salient news, climate change has taken its methodical toll on Russia

As a part-Russian environmental campaigner and journalist working in Europe, I’m often intrigued by the absent role that Russia plays in mainstream environmental coverage. Like many other countries, Russia only seems to enter the picture on the back of extreme events. At other moments, the country is an “environmental basketcase”, a rogue state so distant from achieving any progress that we should just ignore it. Or it’s a country of such immense proportions that it defies comprehension or interest.

But over decades, under the radar of salient news, climate change has taken its methodical toll on Russia. This impact has been expressed primarily through the increased frequency of extreme weather. In 2012, the country made it into the higher reaches of the Climate Risk Index as the ninth country most affected by climate change that year.

Forest fires are becoming increasingly recurrent and destructive. Over the past two years, fires across Siberia and the Far East have wrought tremendous human and financial damage. In the summer of 2010, the concoction of a historic heatwave and heavily-polluting forest fires caused around 11,000 excess deaths. That same year saw the beginning of a two year-drought which delivered a major blow to crop yields, driving up food prices.

Areas such as the Altai region, the Northern Caucasus, the basins of the Yenisei and Lena rivers, and the Komi republic have become more prone to flooding. In 2012, 171 people died in the town of Krymsk, Krasnodar after torrential rains unleashed the equivalent of five months of precipitation in one night. Three years later, a study by Russian and German researchers linked the inundation directly to the rise of temperatures in the Black Sea

Beyond bouts of extreme weather, gradualist impacts are also occurring. Climate change has contributed to the spread of tick-borne encephalitis, and experts have warned of the growing reach of parasites. Exacerbated by global warming, the world’s highest rates of coastal erosion are being seen in Russia, with islands such as Vize in the Arctic Ocean losing between five to fifteen metres of coastline a year.

Thawing permafrost, beyond the pandemic risks it carries, poses significant threats to ancient indigenous burial sites and the country’s infrastructure, much of which is built on perennially frozen land.

As the permafrost melts, the soil loosens, tilting foundations. Large amounts of infrastructure are already “deformed”, and scientists have warned of potential oil spills and radioactive waste leaks as a result of the thaw. 

Life on the brink 

Russia has some of the world’s harshest living environments, and over millennia, communities have managed to negotiate a laboured adaptation. But that fragile coexistence means that even the slightest disruption of ecosystems can have lasting repercussions. 

As the impacts begin to be seen, the tragic dynamic of climate violence recurs — suffering falls hardest on those most vulnerable to it. In Russia, those most affected by climate change have been and will be marginalised indigenous populations and the poorest and most isolated communities in the country.

Outdated infrastructure, an enormous territory, limited public concern, unprepared cities and a lack of governmental initiative have all helped compound the toll. 

Those who speak out about the country’s environmental problems also face risks. The “foreign agents law”, introduced by the Russian government in 2012, has been used to threaten environmental organisations such as the Siberian Environmental Center, EcoDefense and, most recently, Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus. High profile environmentalists have had to leave the country. Last week, volunteer firefighters from Greenpeace and Ecological Watch who were working to put out fires in Krasnodar were attacked by armed men in masks.

The scale of Russian climate change is perhaps most overt when placed in contrast with wider trends. The fastest warming is being experienced in regions closest to the poles, and Russia is no exception, with its temperatures increasing faster than the rest of the planet. A report by Russia's climate and environment agency indicated that between 1976 and 2012, average Russian temperatures rose by 0.43°C per decade — more than twice the global average. Recent studies have indicated that Russia, together with other states in Northern Asia, could face 6-16°C rise in average temperature by 2100, as opposed to a global temperature rise of 4°C. 

Our opinions are rooted in what we see, and when it comes to issues like climate change, too many of us confuse the limits of our sight with the limits of reality

The impact of climate change on Russia also carries enormous global significance, as Russia is arguably the world’s largest sink of greenhouse gases. The country’s extensive boreal forests, increasingly vulnerable to fires, hold between 300m and 600m metric tons of carbon. The country’s permafrost and peat bogs hold an estimated 950 billion metric tonnes of carbon — around 1.3 times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 

Finally, the country’s colossal reserves of fossil fuels (157,010m tonnes of coal, 33 trillion cubic metres of gas, and 105,000m barrels of oil) contain levels of carbon that starkly surpass what can safely be emitted. Climate change, and an economic model predicate on intensive extraction, risk shattering that sink.

In addition, Russia plays a significant role in global food security as the world’s largest exporter of wheat. In 2010, when heatwaves and bushfires devastated the country’s harvests, the government imposed export bans on wheat, barley and rye. This decree helped fuel the global food crisis that year, which in turned helped fuel convulsions and unrest across the world, particularly in the Middle East. 

We face perilous times. Every month in 2016 has been the warmest in recorded history. From Colombia to Bangladesh, the frail ecosystems that allow for life to take hold are being unwoven

Climate change, aside from being a challenge of overcoming vested interests, infrastructures and economic systems, is an acute challenge of empathy and understanding. Whilst many communities around the world already face unlivable realities that merit drastic responses, most decision-makers, populations and organisations with the power to affect the situation, are at a comfortable distance from the urgency.

Our opinions are rooted in what we see, and when it comes to issues like climate change, too many of us confuse the limits of our sight with the limits of reality. To shatter that distance, more than ever we need coverage and understanding of climate change that is expansive, critical and genuinely international. 

By ignoring the impacts of climate change in Russia, we not only turn our backs to communities experiencing the ferocity of a precarious climate, we inhibit potential solidarities and opportunities for collaborative action that are dearly needed.

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