Siberia Burns: the politics of heat

The recent heat wave in Siberia poses a serious threat to Russian infrastructure – and to the planet. IF Research Intern Anthony J. Piwowarski shows how successive Russian governments have pursued a politics of ecological ruin. Even now, the current administration remains ambivalent towards its environmental obligations.

“Nature is taking its revenge on us, probably,” says Sergei Portnyagin, village head of Russkoye Ustye in Siberia by the Arctic Ocean Coast. Throughout this year’s summer months, Sergei has had to contend with a record-breaking Arctic heat wave that seems, once again, to underline the perils of climate change.

These abnormal temperatures may make 2020 the hottest year since records began, as Arctic sea ice shrinks to its second lowest level on record. Meanwhile, smouldering embers reignite carbon-rich peatland, sparking “zombie fires” that have released more carbon in the past 18 months than in the past 16 years combined. The heat could also release stores of methane gas from melting Arctic permafrost, which thaws as the climate warms.

Weighing up the facts

Environmental correspondents choose their words carefully. Reporting on the heat wave, journalists have done their best to acknowledge the immediate, weather-related cause of the heat wave (a “blocked” polar jet stream), whilst highlighting its relationship to climate change.

This balanced approach makes sense: it respects the causal complexity of the phenomenon, whilst pre-empting denialist attempts to isolate the event and portray it as a freak accident of nature unrelated to human activity.

Yet whilst a careful discussion of the science is commendable, the political dimension remains undercooked in media reporting, accorded sufficient detail only in specialist articles hidden behind paywalls.

Impending climate disaster is not just about science. It is also about how certain decision-makers, acting under political constraints, make bad choices that threaten to condemn present and future generations.

Government property

On a global level, this seems obvious. At the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference, Greta Thunberg addressed politicians of every nation when she said “you are stealing [children’s] future in front of their very eyes”. There is an emerging consensus that governments around the world have not responded sufficiently to the crisis.

Yet this broad-brush chastisement of collective political failure lacks depth, for two reasons. Firstly, it fails to recognise that whilst government climate failures are visible everywhere, they occur for different reasons in different places. Secondly, in emphasising that governments are not doing enough, the rhetoric casts states merely as unhelpful bystanders, obscuring their active and often intimate participation in the politics of ecological ruin.

Nowhere is this relationship clearer than in Russia. Douglas R. Weiner, Professor of History at the University of Arizona, argues (in his chapter in the 2009 book The Environment and World History, eds. Burke and Pomeranz) that Russian states throughout the last century have viewed their land and population as a trove of mineable resources.

Weiner labels both the USSR and the Russian Federation as “tribute-taking regimes” who exhaust their land and population for political gain. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s embattled position on the global stage justified ever-greater strains on its natural environment. Particularly egregious fossil fuel projects included pumping the Samotlor oilfield in Western Siberia full of water in the late 1960s to accelerate oil extraction, creating an uninhabitable Arctic swamp swimming in diluted black gold. By the time the USSR was dissolved in 1991, 15% of the Russian Federation’s territory – home to 20% of its population – was deemed to be in an “acute ecological situation”.

Whilst literature on intergenerational injustice focuses on short-termism in democratic systems, it is worth thinking about how an ostensibly rational, planned economy with long-reigning leaders drove its fixed resources to the point of exhaustion. Vladimir Putin has further deepened Russia’s dependence on fossil fuel exports, monopolising resource wealth to bolster his authority, whilst sustaining Russia’s combative foreign policy by weaponising oil and gas exports.

Heat in a cold climate

Many hope that the recent Siberian heat waves will stimulate change. Temperatures at Khatanga in the Arctic Circle, normally averaging 0°C at this time of year, have skyrocketed to above 35°C. Yet the government’s position remains, at best, ambiguous. Indeed, officials are optimistic that melting ice caps might make possible a Northern Sea Route for shipping goods between Europe and Asia, and seek yet again to secure economic gain from ecological calamity, pledging to invest 735bn roubles (US$11bn) into this scheme over the next six years.

The Russian government is, however, alert to the dangers of melting permafrost, which supports roads, railways, and (crucially) petroleum processing plants and pipelines. The top few metres of permafrost are known as the “active layer” which freezes and thaws with the seasons. Rising temperatures in the Arctic deepen the active layer, making it harder for the ground to support the infrastructure.

In May of this year, a fuel tank near Norilsk in Krasnoyarsk Krai burst, releasing 150,000 barrels of diesel into a river, and possibly polluting the Arctic Ocean. Norilsk Nickel, the owners of the fuel tank, explained the disaster by arguing that the permafrost underneath the tank had weakened.

Climate action?

IPCC research has indeed shown that highly unstable permafrost regions house some 45% of oil and natural gas production fields in the Russian Arctic, including two of Russia’s biggest new gas projects supported by Vladimir Putin. Perhaps rickety wells are springs of change: last September the Russian government formally ratified the Paris Climate Agreement (albeit on favourable terms), and the Ministry of Economic Development has since drafted a carbon tax bill.

Yet whilst the Russian state has made overtures towards climate-friendly legislation, its foreign policy strategy continues unabated. Between March and April of this year, Russia started an oil price war with OPEC countries, dumping oil onto the market prolifically to outmanoeuvre Saudi Arabia and undermine the US’s shale oil industry.

Julian Lee from Bloomberg sums up the paradox: “Vladimir Putin needs to go green quickly… so that Russian oil and gas companies can keep pumping the hydrocarbons.” Yet whilst Russia’s objectives are contradictory, the stakes seem too high for Russia to thoroughly reform the fossil fuel industry. Against a deep-seated hostility towards its diplomatic rivals, and an equally tenacious sense of entitlement over its natural environment, piecemeal environmental policy-making appears as little more than a PR strategy.

Russia’s natural environment is thus hostage to a political system that dramatically fails to price in the intergenerational and ecological injustices of its policies. Of course, a global crisis should not be reduced to the policies of one country. But political contexts matter, and the scale of damage caused by the Siberian heat wave is amplified by the exhausted ecologies of affected regions.

Recognising this, governments can use their diplomatic influence to change the international relations that currently inform Russia’s foreign policy. The EU is Russia’s biggest foreign trading partner, and a carbon border tax could go some way towards shifting Russia’s policy priorities. Media reports, meanwhile, should use the dramatic headlines of climate disaster to hold individual governments and politicians to account.

For now, the Siberian heat wave, and Russia’s damaged ecology more generally, remains a tragic and neglected story about bad decisions.

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