Climate Sanctions

«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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