Climate change is contributing to an increasing number of natural disasters and technological incidents in northern Russia. According to the FOI report “Climate change and natural disasters: A challenge for Russian policymakers”, published in English, the weak Russian economy and a sceptical approach to climate change are hindering the implementation of the measures needed.
Around 60 per cent of Russia’s landmass is covered by permafrost. But that area is reducing in step with a rising global mean temperature.
The increased thawing of permafrost creates serious problems, typically in the form of natural disasters involving floods and forest fires – in the summer of 2010, for example, Russia experienced a prolonged period of high temperatures during which there were seven thousand forest fire outbreaks. But when the permafrost thaws, the ground tends to settle with adverse consequences for houses, roads and other infrastructure originally designed to be built on permanently frozen ground. In addition, northern Russia depends substantially on ice roads for heavy transport during a winter season that is becoming steadily shorter.
“Various estimates have been made that suggest that climate change on average causes the loss of thousands of lives every year and entails substantial costs for the struggling economy,” says Roger Roffey, the FOI scientist who has prepared the report.
The increases in temperature are also causing large areas of the Arctic to remain ice free during parts of the year. According to this report this could lead to tension in the area because, among other things, Russia will wish to safeguard its new oil extraction activities while other countries are also increasing their presence in the area and making greater use of the Northeast Passage for commercial shipping. The rise in temperature could also mean that large amounts of methane gas will be released from marshy areas, so hastening the process of global warming.
According to the report the big problem is that Russia neither seems to have the will, or to prioritise the necessary resources, to deal with the changes that are taking place.
“Among other things there seems to be a general perception that a warmer climate will be advantageous, for example in making new areas available for crop cultivation. But research shows that, on the contrary, prolonged dry periods in southern Russia are having the effect of reducing the level of food production. We also see that when there are flooding events that are not properly dealt with, President Putin tends to make an appearance and castigate some local leaders instead of ensuring that the state recognises its responsibility for devising and funding a sustainable solution,” says Roger Roffey.
The report notes that this is nothing new for Russia’s scientific community. But when the Russian state decides instead to invest in areas such as defence, critical voices are understandably raised in protest.
“When the authorities fail to give any priority to climate and environmental issues, those working in these fields are rendered relatively powerless. The scientific community is of course dependent on funding from the authorities so they have to be careful in their criticism even though they do publish reports that describe the situation as it is,” says Roger Roffey.