«In matters of climate, Russia cannot be removed from the globe»

The mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex is one of the dirt­i­est indus­tries in terms of its impact on cli­mate and the envi­ron­ment, even in peace­time. It is espe­cial­ly harm­ful to our plan­et dur­ing active com­bat oper­a­tions. Nevertheless, after February 24, 2022, Russia was not exclud­ed from the glob­al cli­mate process, although var­i­ous insti­tu­tions in finance, sci­ence, cul­ture, sports, and busi­ness pres­sured Russia to stop the war in Ukraine. Russian sports teams were denied the right to par­tic­i­pate in inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tions, Russian sci­en­tif­ic insti­tutes were exclud­ed from inter­na­tion­al projects, and major com­pa­nies in indus­tries rang­ing from cars to media ser­vices left Russia.

But there is an area of inter­ac­tion in which it is very dif­fi­cult to pres­sure Russia: cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal agree­ments and projects, and every­thing that has to do with sav­ing the plan­et. In many ways, Russia’s geog­ra­phy ensures its sta­tus. It’s a huge coun­try stretch­ing across four cli­mat­ic belts, from the Arctic to the sub­trop­ics, with a long coast­line, vast forest­ed areas, and the largest per­mafrost zone. Russia can­not be ignored in the prob­lem of green­house gas emis­sions, as it is the fifth largest emit­ter in the world. The essence of inter­na­tion­al cli­mate pol­i­cy is to ensure all coun­tries’ par­tic­i­pa­tion, regard­less of their polit­i­cal regime and whether they respect human rights. Then what is hap­pen­ing in the field of cli­mate change at a time when there is a war in Europe? T-invari­ant asked this ques­tion to Marianna Poberezhskaya, a researcher of cli­mate pol­i­cy in author­i­tar­i­an regimes and asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Nottingham Trent University, and Olga Dobrovidova, cli­mate sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor and free­lance jour­nal­ist writ­ing for Science and Nature.

Marianna Poberezhskaya, a researcher of cli­mate pol­i­cy in author­i­tar­i­an regimes and asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Nottingham Trent University

Olga Dobrovidova, cli­mate sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor and free­lance jour­nal­ist writ­ing for Science and Nature

T-i: How has the mil­i­tary action in Ukraine affect­ed glob­al cli­mate policy?

MP: First of all, at the begin­ning of the war, there was a fear that all atten­tion would now go right to the con­flict and to more imme­di­ate solu­tions, to help­ing the affect­ed side, the refugees, and so on. Secondly, the war trig­gered an ener­gy cri­sis, and there was a fear that it would, in turn, affect long-term cli­mate-relat­ed deci­sions. But after a year, it became clear that the effect of the war was only notice­able in the short term. And the con­fir­ma­tion of this is that the November UN sum­mit on cli­mate change in Egypt took place any­way. Of course, the Russian del­e­ga­tion did not par­tic­i­pate in this con­fer­ence in the same way they did a year ago, but it attend­ed nonethe­less. So the nego­ti­a­tion process is still going on, and it is so glob­al that even shocks like the war do not affect it dras­ti­cal­ly. For many years, the cen­tral mes­sage of the Russian del­e­ga­tion was that Russia was a leader in green­house gas emis­sions reduc­tion, thanks to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse in the 1990s. This was pre­sent­ed as an eco­log­i­cal achieve­ment: com­pared to 1990, green­house gas emis­sions have decreased by 30% or even more. But every­one under­stood there was no pur­pose­ful pol­i­cy of decar­boniz­ing the coun­try behind this rhetoric. This went on for quite some time, until short­ly before February 2022, there was a lit­tle flur­ry of activ­i­ty: the cli­mate was dis­cussed at a high­er lev­el in seri­ous tones. It was real­ly inter­est­ing to watch: many con­fer­ences were held in Russia, and dia­logues and debates start­ed with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of civ­il soci­ety activists, jour­nal­ists, and sci­en­tists. And there was the illu­sion that the long-await­ed moment has arrived when Russia’s cli­mate pol­i­cy does not real­ly take the form of a screen, a facade, but rather gets some kind of real imple­men­ta­tion. This was part­ly linked to the impend­ing adop­tion of the European Union car­bon tax, after which you have to pay whether you want to or not, whether you believe in cli­mate change or not, or whether you think it is a con­spir­a­cy. And the European Union was the main part­ner in buy­ing resources from Russia, which is why every­one began to think so seri­ous­ly about what this meant, how to rebuild, and what lan­guage to use to talk about all of this. But this burst of activ­i­ty was pret­ty short-lived because soon, the whole dis­course was monop­o­lized by the dis­cus­sion relat­ed to the invasion.

T-i: Did domes­tic nation­al envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy change with the war?

MP: There has been a neg­a­tive rever­sal inside Russia, as if there was a feel­ing that now we don’t even have to pre­tend to be social­ly respon­si­ble. Again, we see some argu­ments about con­spir­a­cies, about cli­mat­ic inven­tions of the West direct­ed against Russia. What we have been walk­ing away from for decades is com­ing back again.

T-i: In Russia, a large part of the nation­al bud­get depends on hydro­car­bon pro­duc­tion. And the largest busi­ness is relat­ed to hydro­car­bon pro­duc­tion. Has Europe’s rejec­tion of Russian gas and oil and the asso­ci­at­ed changes in busi­ness all affect­ed the way Russia has begun to think about the cli­mate? You have not­ed the degree of inad­e­quate assess­ment and the return of archa­ic, slack-jawed con­spir­a­cy rhetoric that we are see­ing in prac­ti­cal­ly all spheres. But here, all this is rein­forced by the dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion with the hydro­car­bon lob­by and the fact that now Russia has few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties to sell hydro­car­bons, and their impor­tance is dimin­ish­ing. Has this con­nec­tion come through or not?

MP: Some changes are already vis­i­ble: busi­ness­es have asked for per­mis­sion not to report emis­sions, although in 2021, they final­ly intro­duced a law that every­one has to report how many emis­sions they have, depend­ing on the size of the orga­ni­za­tion, the busi­ness. That was a big, big step and a sub­stan­tial change in cli­mate pol­i­cy at the nation­al lev­el. Because first of all, to under­stand what to reduce, you have to know what is out there and what is going on — you need some kind of trans­paren­cy struc­ture in the country.
After the start of the war, there was this talk: Why does Russia need this now? If before it was need­ed to trade and estab­lish rela­tions with Europe, now the moti­va­tion is gone. Similar process­es are tak­ing place in the leg­is­la­tion reg­u­lat­ing trans­port. They also dis­cuss steps back there in con­nec­tion with the fact that now there is no need to intro­duce any restric­tions in light of oth­er more acute prob­lems. But note that there is no orga­nized lob­by in Russia that calls for for­get­ting about the cli­mate, and there nev­er has been because it was nev­er need­ed. Compare that to America — the US is a vivid exam­ple of anti-cli­mate lob­by for­ma­tion. The American case is well stud­ied and described, and there were seri­ous play­ers who lob­bied and financed anti-cli­mate poli­cies, influ­enc­ing pub­lic opin­ion and the media.
There was no such need in Russia because no one real­ly cares about the cli­mate. Russia has always been on the low­er bounds of inter­est in these prob­lems com­pared to oth­er coun­tries. Therefore, busi­ness­es did not need to invest much in pur­pose­ful­ly chang­ing pub­lic opin­ion or lob­by­ing for high-lev­el deci­sions. In this regard, the most neg­a­tive impact of the war now will be that the top­ic of cli­mate will fall into silence. And what pub­lic orga­ni­za­tions, inter­est­ed peo­ple, and experts have been push­ing for years will be for­got­ten. In addi­tion, quite a large num­ber of peo­ple with knowl­edge in this area have left the coun­try. The loss of human cap­i­tal in the cli­mate field is, of course, anoth­er casu­al­ty of what is hap­pen­ing now.

T-i: Does this mean that the pre­vi­ous atten­tion to cli­mate prob­lems in Russia was pri­mar­i­ly relat­ed to eco­nom­ic rela­tions with Europe?

OD: In the fif­teen years that I have been fol­low­ing the cli­mate agen­da in Russia, I can clear­ly see a trend: activ­i­ty in cli­mate pol­i­cy is always strong­ly linked to the inter­est of the upper lev­els of gov­ern­ment. For exam­ple, Dmitry Medvedev decides to go to Copenhagen in 2009, and an envoy for cli­mate pol­i­cy appears, a cli­mate doc­trine appears, and all kinds of action began on cli­mate change. Then atten­tion dis­si­pates, and the moti­va­tion to do some­thing is lost because, at least in Russia, the low­er lev­els of gov­ern­ment are strong­ly moti­vat­ed by what is going on at the top and what pri­or­i­ties they see. And then silence ensues… Precisely the kind of silence that Marianna talks about. But I would note that when it comes to the atten­tion of the Russian state, silence is not always a bad thing, real­ly. It allows the small, grass­roots activ­i­ties that have appeared in recent years to survive.

MP: Again, one of the con­clu­sions we’ve come to by study­ing cli­mate dis­course in var­i­ous coun­tries in pre­vi­ous years is that in Russia, as such, there is no cen­sor­ship in terms of cli­mate because we don’t care.

OD: The cli­mate agen­da in Russia is an “elu­sive Joe” because no one is inter­est­ed in catch­ing him.

MP: In a way, it was a plus, although it would seem that the coun­try that depends on fos­sil resources, the whole econ­o­my was built on gas, oil, and coal — it should have been such a rather painful top­ic. But since the upper ech­e­lons did­n’t real­ly con­nect the dots or pay atten­tion to all these con­cepts, and the pop­u­la­tion had lit­tle aware­ness of all these cause-and-effect con­nec­tions, the cli­mate was a rea­son­ably safe topic.

T-i: It was, but it does­n’t stay. Since Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine, sev­er­al envi­ron­men­tal, bio­di­ver­si­ty, and cli­mate pro­tec­tion orga­ni­za­tions have been des­ig­nat­ed as for­eign agents. Among them are the World Wildlife Fund, the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Baltic, Ecodefense!, Women’s Council, Sakhalin Environmental Watch, Center for the Conservation and Study of Salmon Fish Species and Habitats, and the Ecological Movement “42.” The Pacific Center for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources and the Bellona Environmental Foundation were deemed unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tions. And in October 2022, cli­mate activist Arshak Makichyan, a mem­ber of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment Fridays for Future, found­ed by Greta Thunberg, was stripped of his Russian cit­i­zen­ship with an indef­i­nite ban on enter­ing Russia for anti-war speech. So there is no hope that peo­ple who are con­cerned about sav­ing the plan­et and wor­ried about cli­mate change will be able to sit in that niche. But let’s get back to the inter­na­tion­al agen­da. Over the last six months, there have been sev­er­al impor­tant the­mat­ic UN con­fer­ences on cli­mate and ecol­o­gy, a sum­mit on bio­di­ver­si­ty, and an agree­ment on pro­tect­ing the world’s oceans. How did Russia per­form at these conferences?

OD: Late last year, Canada unex­pect­ed­ly achieved some results in the bio­di­ver­si­ty nego­ti­at­ing track. An even more unex­pect­ed result was a treaty to pre­serve bio­di­ver­si­ty in the open ocean beyond nation­al juris­dic­tions. No one real­ly expect­ed to get it togeth­er and agree on some­thing. The water con­fer­ence was also quite suc­cess­ful, accord­ing to observers and activists. But, to your ques­tion on how Russia par­tic­i­pat­ed, the short answer will be: We don’t know. Generally, we do not receive any infor­ma­tion, except maybe some offi­cial press releas­es issued for inter­nal reporting.

T-i: Why?

OD: Russian jour­nal­ists don’t write about this, although it’s not their fault, most of the time. And in English, jour­nal­ists on oth­er beats write about Russia and report, for instance, that dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions in Canada, Russia object­ed to a par­tic­u­lar word in an arti­cle relat­ed to gen­der. And thus, it blocked the process for a few hours, appar­ent­ly for a long time. Does this char­ac­ter­ize Russia’s posi­tion on bio­di­ver­si­ty and bio­di­ver­si­ty pro­tec­tion in the world? Clearly not. We do not real­ly know what these peo­ple are say­ing in the name of the Russian Federation. And why do they say this, and how does this relate to what is hap­pen­ing inside the coun­try, and what does this mean for domes­tic policy…?
And this broad­ly illus­trates what we dis­cussed ear­li­er: why the cli­mate theme was safe in Russia. Because the cli­mate pol­i­cy exist­ed com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from the coun­try’s ener­gy pol­i­cy, and noth­ing done in the cli­mate sphere had any­thing to do with the strat­e­gy for coal min­ing devel­op­ment. This total dis­con­nect between what is hap­pen­ing in the world and what is hap­pen­ing in Russia large­ly explains why cli­mate pol­i­cy, and indeed any inter­na­tion­al cli­mate pol­i­cy, may be pre­sent­ed as the “screen” that Marianna men­tioned. If it does not mat­ter what is going on inter­nal­ly, then it is pos­si­ble to draw some social­ly accept­able pic­ture and be sat­is­fied with this.

T-i: Let’s look for analo­gies. Here we have an exam­ple of a geo­graph­i­cal­ly large coun­try that has long been under sanc­tions — Iran. How does it par­tic­i­pate in the inter­na­tion­al cli­mate agen­da, in any agree­ments, and so on? Can we try on the Iranian jack­et on Russia’s shoulders?

MP: That’s a very good ques­tion. I’ve actu­al­ly been work­ing on the Middle East for the last cou­ple of years, but not Iran, for obvi­ous rea­sons. It’s one of the biggest emit­ters that has­n’t rat­i­fied the Paris Agreement. So Iran stands apart.

T-i: But the vol­ume of its emis­sions is not so sig­nif­i­cant that you have to wor­ry about Iran on its own?

MP: You can and should be wor­ried because all coun­tries in the Middle East are essen­tial. They all have a dras­ti­cal­ly chang­ing cli­mate. You can look at anoth­er exam­ple, Saudi Arabia, which is now becom­ing the most impor­tant play­er in the region. Their whole polit­i­cal regime there is based on fos­sil resource rents, and at the same time, their tem­per­a­ture is ris­ing to the point where it is impos­si­ble to live in some parts of the coun­try. This is an exam­ple of a very influ­en­tial but incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult nego­ti­at­ing part­ner. And I have seen monot­o­nous, hours-long nego­ti­a­tions about one word that the Saudi rep­re­sen­ta­tives will insist on. Again, as in the exam­ple of gen­der and bio­di­ver­si­ty, the Saudis also like to pick a word, say, “pub­lic,” and insist for three hours on remov­ing it. They are a tough play­er, but you lis­ten to them. It seems to me that a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion will devel­op around Russia. The first shock of the war passed, when every­one was some­how in a sus­pend­ed state, with no idea what to do or how to com­mu­ni­cate. But then grad­u­al­ly, some moments began to emerge that no, we need to con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tion, that we need to look for accept­able for­mats of communication.

T-i: In this sense, the exam­ple of the Arctic Council, which Russia chairs from 2021 to 2023, is impor­tant. Now the chair­man­ship should go to Norway. How did Russia man­age the Arctic dur­ing the war years?

OD: I think the Arctic will help a lot to under­stand where any pos­si­ble analo­gies with Iran end. Russia con­trols, if I’m cor­rect, more Arctic ter­ri­to­ry than all the oth­er Arctic Council mem­bers, and this is a geo­graph­i­cal fact. So Russia had big plans for this chair­man­ship. There was also a sense from the oth­er par­tic­i­pants that they have spent a lot of effort build­ing mutu­al trust with­in the Arctic Council. This includ­ed sci­en­tif­ic research, search and res­cue of ships at sea, fish­eries, bio­di­ver­si­ty con­trol, and coop­er­a­tion with indige­nous peo­ples. There were rea­sons to hope for vis­i­ble results under the Russian chair­man­ship. Spoiler alert: That did not pan out.
Although Norway is active­ly sig­nalling that no one can afford to reduce coop­er­a­tion in the Arctic, espe­cial­ly in the sci­en­tif­ic sphere, because too much depends on it in cli­mate pol­i­cy and oth­er issues. Especially the top­ic of sci­en­tif­ic coop­er­a­tion must some­how sur­vive. But how to do this is not very clear. Because yes, col­lab­o­ra­tion at the lev­el of indi­vid­u­als (to a less­er extent at the lev­el of orga­ni­za­tions, because it is always more dif­fi­cult with this: sanc­tions start against them), it goes on. But still, the Arctic Council is an inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion. It has its pro­to­col and its for­mal­i­ties, and you can­not sim­ply exclude Russia from the Arctic Council. So what will hap­pen after Russia hands over the chair­man­ship — it’s an open ques­tion. And frankly speak­ing, it is open not only for the coun­tries of the Arctic Council but also for observ­er coun­tries, for example.
In April, I wit­nessed five experts from China, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan dis­cussing their coun­tries’ posi­tions on what is hap­pen­ing in the Arctic Council. And they are anx­ious about the idea of build­ing a par­al­lel Arctic Council, which the Russian experts peri­od­i­cal­ly throw in. And if we take into account the fact that Russia con­trols more than 50% of the Arctic ter­ri­to­ries, it will even be, in a sense, a legit­i­mate body. So now the ques­tion is being decid­ed: will there be a par­al­lel Arctic Council or some kind of reload of the cur­rent Arctic Council? And it is a real­ly com­pli­cat­ed issue because the cur­rent Arctic Council has projects that just got off the ground: on pro­tect­ing fish that live in the cen­tral Arctic, on restrict­ing fish­ing where it is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to pro­tect them. After years of nego­ti­a­tions, they did not come into effect until 2021. And now the project par­tic­i­pants, of course, hope it will be pos­si­ble to keep all of this with­in the struc­ture of the cur­rent Arctic Council. But how to do this is not at all clear.

T-i: So there was and can be no cen­sor­ing of Russia with­in the Arctic Council?

OD: No, but it was also impos­si­ble not to react. So after the out­break of war, sev­en of the eight mem­ber coun­tries sus­pend­ed their work indef­i­nite­ly. They sim­ply did­n’t come to meet­ings, although Russia has since suc­cess­ful­ly con­tin­ued to chair the Arctic Council. It held a con­fer­ence on per­mafrost in Yakutsk, for exam­ple, with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of experts from India and China. And how coop­er­a­tion with Russia will be struc­tured in the future is not an idle ques­tion at all.

T-i: There is anoth­er area from which Russia def­i­nite­ly can­not be exclud­ed: data col­lec­tion on cli­mate, mon­i­tor­ing per­mafrost zones, and so on. Here Russia is an essen­tial source not only of infor­ma­tion but also of good spe­cial­ists, right?

OD: Indeed, this is again a case where Russia can­not sim­ply be removed from the globe. Not only, by the way, because of the Arctic and the per­mafrost, but also because of the for­est bio­me, because of the length of the coast­line, obser­va­tions in the ocean, and, as you cor­rect­ly not­ed, experts. Recently, speak­ing on Canadian radio, Chris Byrne, pres­i­dent of the International Permafrost Association, not­ed that Russia is the first coun­try in the world in terms of total per­mafrost area, and Canada is sec­ond. Russia alone has about two thou­sand per­mafrost spe­cial­ists, and Canada has only fifty. And these fig­ures give an idea of the kind of exper­tise in Russia in this field, cou­pled with geog­ra­phy and location.
It is no coin­ci­dence that my col­leagues at Science have pub­lished an arti­cle in light of the upcom­ing han­dover of the chair­man­ship of the Arctic Council, on how sanc­tions against Russia and iso­la­tion in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty have affect­ed this research. The arti­cle’s title is a quote, “We are cut off” from our research object. And there are peo­ple who have been involved in Arctic research and work­ing in the Russian Arctic, but they are for­eign sci­en­tists who just can’t get to their object of study.

T-i: Can’t they get in because of polit­i­cal deci­sions to ban coop­er­a­tion with sci­en­tists rep­re­sent­ing state insti­tu­tions in Russia? Although oth­er sci­en­tists, as we know, prac­ti­cal­ly do not exist in Russia.

OD: Absolutely. The arti­cle men­tions attempts to cir­cum­vent some of these restric­tions through neu­tral affil­i­a­tions for con­fer­ence atten­dees and how much these attempts are in con­flict with what is hap­pen­ing in Russia. There is a lot of anx­i­ety about los­ing the long-term time series of data which go back many decades and allow for reli­able con­clu­sions to be drawn.

T-i: Political experts who fol­low Russia point out that in human resources pol­i­cy, eco­nom­ic issues, and issues relat­ed to infra­struc­ture, many key prob­lems are not solved but are pushed aside because of the war. If we’re talk­ing about cli­mate and envi­ron­men­tal projects, what do you think their fate will be? Are they going to be shelved as well?

MP: I think the projects launched ear­li­er will go on by iner­tia, except for those tied to European tech­nolo­gies, such as those with low car­bon inten­si­ty. Here, obvi­ous­ly, there will be loss­es. It is clear that there will be a reori­en­ta­tion towards China and India. And then a lot will depend on these play­ers. The opti­mist in me will say that this is not so bad because China is now tak­ing the cli­mate issue quite seri­ous­ly. They’re tough nego­tia­tors, but they’re not ignor­ing the green agen­da. And I would also ven­ture to guess that we will once again see a decline in emis­sions from Russia, as in the 90s, but not for envi­ron­men­tal rea­sons, not because of envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy, but because of the eco­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic crises. In oth­er words, for rather neg­a­tive and unex­pect­ed rea­sons, not as a result of pur­pose­ful action. Paradoxically, once again, Russian cli­mate pol­i­cy might ben­e­fit from the trag­ic events by chance.

T-i: Can you give spe­cif­ic exam­ples of projects wind­ing down or going on inertia?

OD : In an arti­cle in Science, I wrote about the per­mafrost obser­va­tion net­work that Roshydromet, cho­sen as the lead orga­ni­za­tion, was going to launch. In the sum­mer, dur­ing the 2022 field sea­son, they were going to start some work on the first of 140, I think, obser­va­tion sta­tions. There was a lot of inter­est in this project from the for­eign audi­ence of Science mag­a­zine. Because, in par­tic­u­lar, it pro­vid­ed pre­cious data on per­mafrost as a mas­sive object that can­not be stud­ied, for exam­ple, from a satel­lite: there, you need on-site obser­va­tions. That is why there was pal­pa­ble enthusiasm.

T-i: So what hap­pens to this net­work in 2023?

OD: Naturally, the project is mov­ing slow­ly. I do not know if this is due to the war or if these are the usu­al delays typ­i­cal of Russian sci­en­tif­ic projects in prin­ci­ple. There is anoth­er inter­est­ing exam­ple of how the with­draw­al of for­eign fund­ing is replaced by some­what unex­pect­ed sources of Russian fund­ing for sci­en­tif­ic projects. It has to do with “car­bon test sites”, which were real­ly in vogue until 2022, where Russia was going to mea­sure green­house gas flux­es and car­bon flux­es in dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems at dif­fer­ent loca­tions. This is such a unique­ly Russian phe­nom­e­non, which was dif­fi­cult to explain out­side of Russia. A for­eign part­ner dropped out of one of the projects, and then the fund­ing went to those very legit­i­mate obser­va­tions of methane flux­es and car­bon diox­ide flux­es in Siberia. Overall, com­pared to the 90s, the sit­u­a­tion looks sad­der to me regard­ing fund­ing sci­en­tif­ic research. Because in the ’90s, there was a surge of inter­est in Russia, the West hoped they would now add resources and best prac­tices there and final­ly see all the trea­sures that Soviet sci­ence held that they could not see. For exam­ple, those per­mafrost obser­va­tion points that exist­ed before this net­work were large­ly built in the 1990s on NSF (US National Science Foundation) dime. Everyone under­stood both the impor­tance of the sites and the invalu­able exper­tise that peo­ple in Russia had. Now, obvi­ous­ly, there is no such inter­est and hope.

T-i: Going back to the war: since about March 2022, when the fight­ing was going on, the voic­es of those experts mon­i­tor­ing the cli­mate have been increas­ing­ly heard. The response from the cli­mate com­mu­ni­ty has been dra­mat­ic: “Look, you’re going to go to war at a time when we have absolute­ly dire warm­ing. If we go to war now and don’t start solv­ing cli­mate prob­lems imme­di­ate­ly, every­one, includ­ing the win­ners, will die soon enough. We also recent­ly had a com­ment from Alexander Chernokulsky of the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who bit­ter­ly not­ed: “I do not think that human­i­ty is capa­ble of keep­ing warm­ing with­in two degrees because of the low capac­i­ty of the two coun­tries to agree and the pres­ence of oth­er inter­ests besides cli­mate. We have to pre­pare for the worst, alas.” What do you have to say about that?

MP: Generally speak­ing, when we talk about wars and the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex, every­one should know that this is one of the most car­bon-inten­sive indus­tries in the world. Even with­out an active war, just because they exist — peo­ple don’t know how many emis­sions are pro­duced to cre­ate weapons. It is not often talked about because this infor­ma­tion is usu­al­ly clas­si­fied. And then, when there are some mil­i­tary activ­i­ties or oper­a­tions — whether train­ing or full-scale wars — these emis­sions increase many times over. Therefore, from this point of view, such neg­a­tive, pes­simistic fore­casts are absolute­ly understandable.

T-i: It would seem to be a killer argu­ment for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with soci­ety, though. It’s hard to con­vince peo­ple to change their food, house­hold, and trans­porta­tion habits to save the plan­et because it makes their lives hard­er and more incon­ve­nient every day. But con­vinc­ing peo­ple not to go to war and not to pro­duce mil­i­tary equip­ment to pre­serve the plan­et should seem easier?

MP: I’ll answer here as a naive per­son and a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist. I have been deal­ing with the cli­mate issue for a very long time, and this is my civic posi­tion and my choice: I refuse to be a pes­simist and give up here. We should not give up and go, “There’s a war going on, OK, we’re not going to switch to sus­tain­abil­i­ty, I’m not going to put solar pan­els on my house.” I believe that even if sud­den­ly some­one lis­tens to our dia­logue, even one per­son, and thinks for a sec­ond, “Maybe I should buy an elec­tric car”, — I’ll take that as a win. Even if we don’t stay in that two-degree range, we still have to reduce emis­sions where possible.

T-i: Olga, are you an opti­mist too?

OD: Yes. I am pro­fes­sion­al­ly required to be an opti­mist. That said, I would rather agree with the first part of Alexander Vladimirovich Chernokulsky’s state­ment about two degrees. But I am more inter­est­ed in the sec­ond part of this argu­ment: we should pre­pare for the worst. I think we need to explain what this means. How is cli­mate change por­trayed in pop­u­lar cul­ture? People often imag­ine some overnight cat­a­clysm, like in “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Don’t Look Up,” which sug­gests that you pre­pare for a quick cat­a­stro­phe. But in this case, it real­ly is a lit­tle strange to pre­pare for that and act. Better, in fact, to go have fun and live your last days to the fullest. In real­i­ty, this ‘worst’ that we should pre­pare for depends on the region and geog­ra­phy. And if in one region it becomes unbear­ably hot, in anoth­er region for many res­i­dents, say, of the United States, to pre­pare for the worst means that it will be very expen­sive to live, which, you would agree, changes things a bit. Fortunately, we now have a bet­ter and bet­ter under­stand­ing of how the region­al impacts will be dis­trib­uted. Partly because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is slow­ly shift­ing from increas­ing the lev­el of con­fi­dence that human activ­i­ty is affect­ing the cli­mate from 95% to 99% to talk­ing about how it will man­i­fest and what the effects of cli­mate change will be.

T-i: And, accord­ing­ly, what adap­ta­tion options are pos­si­ble depend­ing on what zone you live in?

OD: Exactly. And here, it is impor­tant to note that no one but Russian sci­en­tists will fig­ure out how Russia, with its dif­fer­ent cli­mate zones, should adapt to cli­mate change. This is a mat­ter of inter­est to Russian cit­i­zens them­selves: no one will be able to answer this ques­tion for them.

T-i: What about per­son­al strate­gies in this area? What do peo­ple do?

OD: When we talk about per­son­al choic­es — choos­ing elec­tric cars, bicy­cles, avoid­ing the con­stant con­sump­tion of meat, etc. — it is use­ful to remem­ber that the rea­son we per­ceive so much of what we can do to com­bat cli­mate change this way has to do with the oil and gas com­pa­nies, among oth­ers, who have pop­u­lar­ized the con­cept of a per­son­al car­bon foot­print. And not sur­pris­ing­ly, the most pop­u­lar ques­tion from mass audi­ences on this top­ic is, “What can I do to reduce my impact on the cli­mate?” And if you google that, the answers are indeed about a plant-based diet, trans­porta­tion, and not, I would note, “You should demand your elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive stops tak­ing mon­ey from the oil and gas com­pa­nies.” Or, “You should boot them if they keep tak­ing that mon­ey.” “You should­n’t invest in stocks of com­pa­nies mak­ing mon­ey from the cli­mate cri­sis.” So it’s a very dif­fer­ent mind­set. And it seems to me that every time you con­vince your­self that you should become a veg­e­tar­i­an in the name of cli­mate, it’s worth stop­ping and think­ing and real­iz­ing that there are oth­er mechanisms.

T-i: So you must become a polit­i­cal­ly active cit­i­zen to make a dif­fer­ence in cli­mate change?

OD: Generally speak­ing, yes.

T-i: Since you have repeat­ed­ly stressed that you are cli­mate opti­mists, then tell me this. I’ve heard more than once in recent years from young peo­ple con­cerned about the cli­mate agen­da this ratio­nale for the con­cept of “Childfree”: “The cli­mate is dete­ri­o­rat­ing so fast that there is no point in hav­ing chil­dren because our chil­dren will slow­ly suf­fo­cate, and if we can­not influ­ence politi­cians who can­not agree with each oth­er now, then we should not tor­ture our future chil­dren. Do you have any­thing to say to these young people?

MP: We are now enter­ing a dan­ger­ous path — think­ing about the next gen­er­a­tion and what we are con­demn­ing them to. These are pow­er­ful pre­dic­tions; it start­ed at the very first major cli­mate con­fer­ence in 1992, when Catholics began to protest, “Don’t talk about pop­u­la­tion and any lim­its there at all.” Now there is a polit­i­cal con­sen­sus that this top­ic should not be tack­led inter­na­tion­al­ly because it involves too many sen­si­tive issues relat­ed to reli­gion and human rights.

OD: The short answer, which would make this ques­tion sim­ple and flat, is that if you real­ly decide to look at the mar­gin­al con­tri­bu­tion of spe­cif­ic actions in terms of that very per­son­al choice at one extreme of this axis from col­lec­tive polit­i­cal action to per­son­al choice, giv­ing up one more child is real­ly the max­i­mum mar­gin­al con­tri­bu­tion. Of course, no one real­ly makes that choice that way, in fact, based on just that fac­tor alone — the impact on the climate.
I don’t know how much this fits with my rep­u­ta­tion as an opti­mist, but in fact, the psy­cho­log­i­cal and tem­po­ral dis­tance to cli­mate change has been shrink­ing con­sid­er­ably in the last ten years. Both because the effects have become more vis­i­ble and because cli­mate sci­ence has advanced a great deal in link­ing spe­cif­ic phe­nom­e­na to glob­al trends. To be frank, I do not feel that peo­ple liv­ing today, in this decade, will be able to hon­est­ly say, “This is not my prob­lem; this is the prob­lem of future gen­er­a­tions”. Another thing is that the frus­tra­tion and anx­i­ety of young peo­ple (not only in Russia but all over the world) have to do with the fact that today the deci­sions that will affect their fate are made not by them at all but by peo­ple who, as they say in Russia, do not even rep­re­sent them. Young peo­ple are bur­dened by the feel­ing that they are sim­ply inher­it­ing a prob­lem they did not cre­ate. But I believe it is not yet the time for all of us to sit down for din­ner and wait for the mete­orite’s arrival, but rather to look up more often.


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