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|As temperatures in Russia climb to
historic highs, parching crops and igniting large tracts of forest
and peatland, analysts are watching to see if these conditions heat
up the country's climate change policies.
"I don't know what it would take to produce an active stance on
climate change in Russia, but I hope this is enough," said Samuel
Charap, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress who
studies Russian climate and energy policy.
Recent comments made by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev link
climate change and the wildfires, stoking speculation about what
Russia may bring to the table in the next round of international
climate talks. But once the wildfires' smoke clears, they may not
amount to much, according to Alexey Kokorin, the Moscow-based
climate negotiator for the World Wildlife Fund.
Medvedev said in a public speech last week, "Unfortunately, what is
happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global
climate change, because we have never in our history faced such
weather conditions," according to a published transcript of the
speech. "This means that we need to change the way we work, and
change the methods that we used in the past," he said.
In another speech, Medvedev said these events must act as a "wake-up
call" for heads of state and social organizations, "in order to take
a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the
climate," as reported by TIME.
"These are not brave statements for European leaders or Obama, but
for a Russian president, it's a new statement," said WWF's Kokorin.
Even last year, Medvedev's speeches on climate change were more
about helping other continents like Europe and Asia without really
focusing on the negative and severe impacts for Russia itself, he
Changes at home, but not in Bonn
Still, it will likely take more than the fires to spark a more
aggressive emission reduction commitment from Russia, Kokorin said.
"I don't expect it will change their international climate talk
stance this year because their negotiations are very pragmatic and
economic-based," he said. Russian officials have taken the stance in
earlier climate talks that committing to curb larger amounts of
emissions could hamper the country's economic growth and that does
not appear to be changing.
At international climate talks last winter in Copenhagen, Denmark,
the country proposed committing to a 15 to 25 percent reduction in
emissions by 2020 based on 1990 levels. The environmental community
widely viewed that number as inadequate.
During the most recent round of climate talks in Bonn, Germany, the
wildfires were already ablaze, and it did not change how Russia
approached the talks, according to Jake Schmidt, international
climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The representative his organization had at the talks saw no change
in the Russian negotiators' position, he said.
While an isolated natural event cannot be ascribed to climate
change, the current Russian heat wave and floods in Pakistan and
China are all consistent with climate change predictions, according
to Jeff Knight, climate variability scientist at the U.K. Met Office
Medvedev has taken steps in the last year to shine light on climate
policy for his country, rolling out a "climate doctrine" for his
country's approach to the issue and urging the Russian government to
back the doctrine with new laws and regulations. Thus far, however,
his words have not translated into action, said Charap. That may be
because the public interest in moving on this issue has not been
there, he said. "Hopefully, there will be an increase in public
awareness now," he said.
After much of the Soviet Union's military-heavy industry collapsed
in the late 1990s, the country's emissions dropped far below the
baseline level established by the Kyoto Protocol, allowing Russia to
stockpile billions of dollars' worth of emissions allowances without
actively greening its industry.
Is a little warming still good?
Since then, Russian climate policy has traditionally been shoved to
the back burner while public pressure to act remained low and
climate skepticism remained high. Just last November, Russia's
state-owned Channel 1 aired a documentary challenging the human link
to climate change, titled "The History of Deception: Global
Warming," according to Charap.
The country's climate stance has also reflected the belief that a
little global warming could be a good thing. A 2007 Russian U.N.
Development Programme report, for example, suggested the benefits of
Russia warming 2 or 3 degrees Celsius might include "higher
agricultural yields, lower winter human mortality ... lower heating
requirements, and a potential boost to tourism" (ClimateWire, June
This summer's wildfires, which covered 175,000 hectares as of
Monday, have killed 52 people, according to Russian government
numbers. The fires have also caused flight delays and prompted Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin to ban all grain exports in an effort to
stave off some of the inevitable price increases. In previous years,
wildfires routinely occurred in more remote Siberian forests, but
drought and extreme heat in the Western regions of the country this
year have caused more fires to spring up in areas around Moscow.
"The important thing is, wildfires have made this a social issue and
caused disruption with a loss of crops and the long-term potential
not only of destruction of agricultural lands, but of their
forestlands," said David Burwell, director of the Energy and Climate
Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "These
things are beginning to gain the attention of not just Medvedev but
the media and the rest of the bureaucracy, including Putin."
While NRDC's Schmidt said that he hopes this summer's heat will spur
action on more ambitious domestic climate policies, he added that it
is difficult to gauge what will move Russian political sentiments.
Trying to guess that information is "like trying to read
blindfolded," he said.