The past year brought a series of weather anomalies: extreme heat and drought, high precipitation and flooding. This spring began with a heat wave in Spain. We asked climate experts Alexander Chernokulsky and Olga Dobrovidova about weather anomalies and asked them to assess the development of global warming as well as how Russia’s position on international cooperation on a variety of climate-related issues affects the global environmental agenda.
1. Global warming. Last summer set a string of negative records. Extreme heat and drought in China, Europe, and North America had dire consequences for many countries. The Yangtze River has shallowed. In France, nuclear reactors had to be shut down — there was no way to cool them. Navigation on the Rhine River came to a halt. There was unprecedented flooding in Pakistan, due to heavy rainfall and melting glaciers in the headwaters of the Indus.
Do you think this is a short-term weather anomaly or a global warming phenomenon? Are the CO2 reduction programs adopted today helping? Is humanity capable of keeping warming to within 2℃ or should we prepare for the worst already today?
2. Russia and the World. The past few months have seen some of the largest climate and environment conferences in the UN including the Biodiversity Summit in December 2022, the Global Ocean Protection Agreement in March, and the recent Water Conference in March 22-24. These conferences set global goals and adopt very specific programs. Russia is the largest country by area. It has the longest border in the Arctic and a huge area of permafrost. Without Russia, the accuracy of weather monitoring and climate long-term forecasts decreases. The need for its participation in global programs is beyond doubt.
What is the real participation of the Russian Federation in international environmental and climate projects today? Do you see any signs that Russia’s work in global programs is winding down?
Alexander Chernokulsky, A.M.Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia
1. Global Warming. From the scientific papers on attribution that I have seen, some of the events listed are confidently attributed to climate change (well, more precisely, their probability becomes statistically significantly higher with current changes). These are, for example, the floods in Pakistan and the heatwave in Europe. In general, not every abnormal event is related to climate change, a number of them become more frequent/intensified, some become weaker with climate change, some hardly change at all. Regarding reductions programs: in my opinion, so far they are totally insufficient to somehow reduce our carbon footprint (this can also be seen in the emission curve, which is growing upwards with a little break for the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic). I don’t think humanity is capable of keeping warming within 2℃ limits because of the low bargaining power of countries and interests other than climate. I think mitigation measures will stabilize at around 2.2-2.52℃. We have to prepare for the worst - we have to, alas.
2. Russia and the World. Russia’s participation in these programs is quite full-fledged, I do not observe any curtailment.
Olga Dobrovidova, science journalist, climate change science communicator, freelance writer for Science, vice president of the European Federation of Science Journalism (EFSJ).
1. Global Warming. Whether these are all short-term weather anomalies, or whether global warming is manifesting itself in this way, is not a matter of opinion, but a field of climate science called attribution studies. Using historical data and climate models, scientists can figure out how rapid human-induced climate change has affected the likelihood of certain extreme weather events. I have a large text in Russian on how this research has evolved in the previous decade from the abnormal heat wave in Moscow in 2010 to +38℃ in Verkhoyansk in June 2020.
The rapid development of climate attribution proved to be so important that it was noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In March of this year, the IPCC presented its Synthesis Report, the last in this sixth cycle (the next time we’ll hear about their work will be at least three to four years from now). Since this report summarizes previous reports, there is nothing new there, but it is convenient to use it as a kind of «abstract» of climate science as of 2023. The text of the report is available in English, in Russian so far there is only a press release in a non-ideal translation. This is, of course, just a press release, albeit a scientific and political organization, but here is what it says:
More than a century of burning fossil fuels and the uneven and unsustainable use of energy and land has led to a global warming of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. The result has been more frequent and more intense extreme weather events, with increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in all regions of the world.
Your other questions with the IPCC report can be answered by the «sandwich principle.» Developments in technology (and the economic instruments to support it) have, for example, made energy from renewable sources very much cheaper. A couple of dozen countries have already managed to «decarbonize» economic growth, meaning that their economies are now growing, but their greenhouse gas emissions are not. Awareness of the problem is growing, and more and more people, companies, organizations, and even whole regions are factoring climate into their actions. All of this led David Wallace-Wells, author of the book about an «The Uninhabited Earth,» to publicly reclassify himself as a moderate optimist at the end of 2022.
At the same time, if we add up all the currently announced plans of countries to abandon fossil fuels and other measures, the output will be not one and a half or two degrees of warming, as in the Paris Agreement, but rather somewhere around 2.8℃ (and that is at best, if all these plans are implemented). To stay on the «Paris» trajectory, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by almost half of 2019 levels by 2030. The IPCC, as a decent and politically neutral organization, cannot directly say that the probability of such an outcome is objectively low. It is not impossible, of course, but the experience of the previous 30 years promises little good in this regard.
Nevertheless, all this does not mean that we can go home and «prepare for the worst.» Climate change adaptation programs are certainly necessary, but they alone will not be enough. Every fraction of a degree matters in terms of consequences for nature and people, and avoiding this warming is easier than trying to «roll back the changes» later. That’s why modernization of energy, agriculture, transportation, and other industries needs to be accelerated.
2. Russia and the World. Most global environmental protection mechanisms within and beyond the United Nations are designed so that decisions are taken by consensus: all parties to a convention or treaty must agree to them, and formally excluding someone from the process is a technically complex action that will have political consequences. Therefore, unacceptable actions by the Russian state in Ukraine, and in Russia itself, are expected to affect the work of these mechanisms, but most often do not block it completely; in light of the seriousness of the problems being discussed there, a diplomatic stalemate is not beneficial to anyone.
But, of course, international negotiations are only part of the work, the most official, but by no means the most important. And in this part, we have to admit, the Russian Federation has not shone particularly well. But there is also scientific research, educational programs, a variety of economic mechanisms, technology development, policy at the regional and local level, activism, the task of adapting to climate change - much of this has been successfully developed in Russia, often not thanks to, but somewhat «perpendicular» to the official state position. This work does not require consensus, and in many cases cooperation with the Russian state and those affiliated with it has ceased. Here the growing gap between Russia and the rest of the world ultimately hurts everyone, Russia itself first and foremost, but not only. But what is even sadder is that the Russian government is now permanently «poisoning the well» for all Russians: it is easy to destroy these ties, it will be harder to restore them.