The cynical psyche
On climate, focus on what Putin does, not what he says – the Russian president’s backyard has literally been on fire
Every day seems to bring a new measure of how far Greta Thunberg has managed to get under the skin of anti-climate politicians. As of today, she has received guidance on pragmatism and political realities from the Presidents of both sides of the not-quite-past Cold War. One of those thinly veiled criticisms, however, is more interesting than the other.
Donald Trump has dismantled US climate policy with the usual tunnel-vision of recent Republican presidents. It is no surprise that he scoffs at Thunberg, a view (among many others) he shares with Vladimir Putin. It is a slightly peculiar fact, therefore, that while Trump insists the United States will leave the Paris Agreement next year, Putin's Russia just joined it.
This is the absolute minimum level of ambition, but it looks better to have the fourth-largest climate polluter on board than not. It also looked unlikely for the longest time, while the 'pragmatists' were eyeing the economic 'benefits' of climate change, and Putin was joking about welcoming warmer weather.
His tune has changed in the past couple of years, as he has publicly referenced a long-observed trend – that his corner of the globe is warming much faster than the rest. According to the Russian weather service's most recent annual climate report, its average temperature has been increasing by 0.47 degrees Celsius every 10 years between 1976 and 2018 — 150 per cent faster than the planet.
Some estimates back in 2015 indicated that Arctic Russia might be warming 2.5 times faster than the planet. Enough information was available to act then, or even well before. The change of heart has resulted not from a continuation of the trend, but from feeling the initial impacts of locked-in warming.
Around 3 million hectares of Arctic forests have been on fire continuously for more than three months this year, spewing a soot cloud larger than the European Union. Forest fires are not unknown in the region, but global warming has made them more intense, frequent and persistent (and is, in turn, being accelerated by the fires).
Where Putin earlier invited the world to extract fossil fuels and minerals newly exposed by Arctic melt, he is now worried that the melt will destroy existing oil and gas infrastructure. That is apart from the fears that nuclear radiation and ancient diseases long trapped in the ice will become part of Russia's present. So Russia chooses to participate in the Paris Agreement, despite the opposition of its fossil fuel industry.
This development is not a signal for optimism in the persuasive power of science. Putin is no convert – he continues to shed crocodile tears for birds killed by windmills, even as oil drilling in the Arctic endangers one-fourth of Russia's marine life. The ratification simply reflects that powers who considered themselves insulated from the climate crisis are now compelled to act because they feel the pain.
That pain is only likely to get worse, according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in the same week as Russia's ratification. The Special Report on Oceans, Cryosphere and Climate (SROCC) projects that, even in the most optimistic mitigation scenarios, global-scale glacier mass loss, permafrost thaw, and decline in snow cover and Arctic sea ice will continue in the next two decades with "unavoidable consequences for … local hazards". One of those hazards is wildfires, which are projected to increase for the rest of this century across most tundra and boreal regions.
As unnerving as that projection is, it pales in comparison to the IPCC's differentiation last year between the global socio-economic impacts of a 1.5°C-versus-2°C warmer world, especially on the poor and vulnerable.
The 1.5°C report was compiled on the demands of small island developing states(SIDS), who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Last week, the SIDS committed to carbon neutrality, and to source all their energy from renewables by 2030. As a mitigation contribution, that is a drop in the ocean. As part of the SIDS' long-running moral strategy, it is a reminder that climate politics is about more than naked self-interest.
For Russia, that means significantly upgrading its un-ambitious Paris targets to reflect its contribution to climate change. Trump has to start much further behind – by understanding the fundamental difference between himself and his increasingly climate-vulnerable country.
(The author is Deputy Programme Manager, Climate Change, Centre For Science and Environment, New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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