“Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change” by Thane Gustafson

Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, Thane Gustafson (Harvard University Press, October 2021) Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, Thane Gustafson (Harvard University Press, October 2021)

One doubts COP26 made much of an impression on Georgetown University’s Thane Gustafson; his recent book Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change doesn’t even entertain the possibility that climate change can be stopped, to say nothing of being reversed.

 

Climate change … challenges the very foundation of the economic growth model on which the stability of our political and social systems depends … Not surprisingly, the effect is to divide us, not unite us… climate change is the ultimate collective action problem. The benefits of limiting greenhouse gas emissions accrue globally, but the costs are borne by individual countries and communities…The temptation to “free ride” will be irresistible.

 

By 2050, he reckons that

 

The world will have warmed, not by the 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius that it has risen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but perhaps by 3 to 5 degrees, particularly at earth’s northern latitudes…

 

This is not an optimistic book.

 

Gustafson’s purpose however is to examine how the expected changes will affect Russia, a country which is his speciality and one of geopolitical importance but which more broadly offers a case study in how, at the level of a single country and its policies, climate change is likely to play out over the next several decades. Russia has the advantage that it is far enough away to be able to be viewed relatively dispassionately and with an economy relatively simple enough that the analysis is not hopelessly complicated.

Klimat is admirably clinical: Gustafson goes through the country industry by industry and issue by issue. Some of the points are relatively obvious: Russia will not have much of a “rising sea levels” problem since its main population centers are, on the whole, well away from the coasts. Russia’s problems will lie—and already do—elsewhere. Although rising temperatures may help agriculture in the north, they are likely to harm grain production in the south, and the Russian soils are progressively worse the farther north one goes. No mangoes from Moscow, then. And while the rest of the world worries that melting permafrost will release methane, the main problem in Russia is that the infrastructure is collapsing as a result and will be increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain and replace.

But the main threat to Russia comes from a less than obvious source. Gustafson predicts that peak demand for fossil fuels may arrive somewhat later than some expect (or hope), but by

 

the early 2030s … as the energy transition takes hold worldwide, Russia’s export revenues from oil, gas, and coal will decline sharply.

 

For the climate, this will be too little, too late, but (ironically perhaps) the bottom will drop out of the fossil fuel market well before mid-century. Climate change may bring Russia some economic benefits—increased opportunity for nuclear power exports, the opening of an Arctic sea route between East Asia and Europe, possible agricultural exports if it manages its cropland properly, opportunities in gas-derived chemicals—but these will not compensate for losses in Russia’s traditional energy exports. Other ironies abound: Russia has the technical nous to compete in zero-carbon energy, but the collapse in export demand for energy will keep Russian domestic prices low, thus largely denying Russian technologists a local market.

Gustafson predicts Russia’s exports will plummet to US$232 billion in 2050 from US$424.6 billion in 2019. Russia is between a rock and a hard place, like much of the rest of the world perhaps, but Russia has less policy scope than the US, say, to cope and mitigate the environmental and economic effects of climate change.

 

While matter-of-fact, Klimat is very readable, and hardly denser than most newspaper commentary. Gustafson will trot out telling anecdotes, such this one:

 

In the winter of 2018, local residents of Kemerovo, the capital city of the Kuzbass coal region, rejoiced as fresh snow blanketed the soot and ash that normally cover it. Or so it seemed. But when they went out to make snowballs, they discovered that the “snow” was actually white paint that had been sprayed over the black sludge. The mayor of the city denied that he had ordered the whitewash, and some lower-ranking officials were reprimanded. The next snowfall was black, as usual …

 

… as well interesting factoids, such as the fact that despite Arctic depopulation, the Siberian city of

 

Yakutsk is booming. From 186,000 inhabitants in the last Soviet census in 1989, the city’s population had nearly doubled to 338,000 by 2018. The explanation is the flip side of the depopulation of the Arctic inland: a steady exodus is under way from the desolate countryside, as ethnic Sakha flock to the city. The good news is that this has made Yakutsk, in the words of two leading ethnographers, “into a genuine Indigenous regional capital, the only one of its kind in the Russian North.”

 

Gustafson includes considerable discussion about Russia’s own pivot to Asia and Asia’s and, in particular, China’s role not just as market but as competitor. The picture is mixed, but again, the conclusion is that China has, on the whole, a greater range of policy options that Russia has.

Klimat skips the argument about what should be done about climate change when, but rather focuses on what the effects will be when it inevitably hits harder than it already has, what the resulting policy options will be and what might impede them—in Russia. It is a methodology that could be usefully applied to other, perhaps more complicated, economies and countries.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.