- Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change
- Harvard University Press (2021)
Author Thane Gustafson published Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change a few months before Feb. 24, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. So the book has nothing to say about the Russian war on Ukraine. But it describes a country trapped in its last years as a great power — and a leader who surely knows it.
Gustafson is a professor at Georgetown University in the U.S., and a specialist in Russia’s energy economy. His book shows how that economy sustained the Soviet Union from the 1960s to its collapse in 1991 — and fuelled the Russian resurgence under Vladimir Putin.
“Russia is the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world,” Gustafson writes. “It has the world’s largest reserves of oil and gas, exceeding even those of Saudi Arabia.” Natural gas is so abundant that Russians consume 70 per cent of its yearly production to heat their homes and run their factories — and pay very little for it. The other 30 per cent goes abroad, at full price, to Europe and elsewhere.
In 2019, income from Russian oil and gas exports totalled US$237.8 billion — 56 per cent of its export income, Gustafson tells us. This enables Russia to import western goods and services, to boost agricultural production and to rebuild its military. But Russian extraction technology is backward and inefficient; while oil and gas are cheap to produce, their profit margins are shrinking. All Russian oil companies, especially those developing new fields, need heavy state subsidies.
Russia’s leaders are aware of climate change, but it is not a public issue. Russian climate scientists were alert to global warming as early as the 1960s, and helped to found the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Russian public, however, pays more attention to environmental pollution and Siberian wildfires than to the threats of droughts, floods and heat domes.
Global warming? Fewer fur coats
Many Russians, including Putin, prefer to talk about the upside of global warming: new lands will be open to farming, they say, and an ice-free Arctic Ocean will open a new shipping route to the Bering Strait and Asia. Putin once joked that Russians would have to buy fewer fur coats.
In reality, Gustafson says, “the world of climate change will be highly unfavourable inside Russia, where temperatures are already rising two-and-a-half times faster than in the rest of the world.”
He also notes that as the Russian north warms, melting permafrost will leave vast swamps of sand and clay and water, lacking in the humus that crops need. Meanwhile droughts will hit the Russian south, reducing wheat production.
The chapter on Russian agriculture is fascinating. Some of us still remember the 1970s and ’80s, when Soviet freighters, with the hammer and sickle on their smokestacks, tied up at the terminal on Burrard Inlet near the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. They were loading Prairie grain because the Soviet Union couldn’t grow enough to feed itself.
Now, Gustafson says, Russia has become a major grain exporter in the last few years thanks to better management by agroholdings — groups of agricultural businesses working as parts of a network. Ironically, western sanctions imposed after Putin took over Crimea have only encouraged Russia to develop local products to replace once-imported foods. But Russian agriculture is also a major emitter of greenhouse gases.
Finished by 2050?
Step by step, Gustafson surveys Russia’s major energy and climate issues and develops a scenario: growing prosperity through the 2020s through the export of gas and oil, and then a slow contraction through the 2030s and 2040s as demand begins to fall. Europe will transition to renewables; other countries will compete with Russia for dwindling fossil-fuel markets. China will produce more and better nuclear reactors than Russia can. Droughts and floods will cripple Russian agriculture, and melting permafrost will shatter infrastructure in Arctic communities. Russia will have more old people to look after, fewer young people and less income to drive its economy and purchase foreign technology.
While he does mention the problem of climate disasters, Gustafson wisely doesn’t deal with them in specifics. But he makes it clear that Putin’s government, and Russia’s economy, will be unable to respond except in the heavy-handed and incompetent ways established by the Soviets.
If we grant that Gustafson knows what he’s talking about, plenty of people in Russia’s elite know it too. And that invites some cautious speculation on Putin’s long-term policies.
Aspiring empires, like resurgent ones, see themselves as weaker than their adversaries, who will strike at the first opportune moment. Better, then, to strike first before the adversaries grow even stronger. So Putin’s little wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk can be seen as cautious steps that he got away with.
Taking over Ukraine would be the first major movement toward a new Russian empire, by turning a competitor into a vassal state again. Ukraine’s agricultural and fossil-fuel wealth would enrich Moscow; eventually Russia could regain its lost Central Asian republics and their wealth as well.
Famine and worse
Putin’s attack on Ukraine can also be seen a war against the world. Without Ukraine’s grain, millions are already at risk of famine. Even rich countries like Canada and the U.S. see sharply rising food prices, stirring up anger and resentment among populations already battered by two years of pandemic.
In poor and middle-income countries the result will be riots, repression and violent uprisings. Alliances are being sorely tested, and Ukraine’s friends in February may be looking to their own interests by July.
The dissident Russian news site Meduza recently offered an even harsher analysis. It argues that Russia could easily replace Ukraine’s wheat exports — but will actually export less than usual, while demanding that sanctions be lifted: “Only then will it agree to ‘save the world’ from famine.”
Margarita Simonyan, the managing editor of RT, turned up recently on Twitter with a “cynical joke”: “All our hope is in the famine. The famine will start now and they will lift the sanctions and be friends with us because they will realize it’s necessary.”
Worse yet, the Meduza analysis says, “Russia is a world leader not only in grain exports but also in fertilizer and natural gas, and if it wants, it will be able to block all three key export lines, leading to an unprecedented food crisis.” Meduza argues that we already produce more food than we consume, but much of it goes to feed livestock and create biofuels. Diverting those food stocks would have serious economic and political consequences.
The sanctions imposed this spring on Russia were really just an early version of the declining demand that Gustafson predicts Europe will have for Russian hydrocarbons. Putin is already selling oil at a discount to customers like India and China. The profit margin may not be high, but such sales keep the money coming in.
All this is speculation, of course. But whatever Putin’s real reasons for war, he has only accelerated the next Russian collapse. Climate change, driven in large part by Russian emissions, will ruin agriculture even in a conquered Ukraine. Siberia will become one vast drunken forest as the permafrost melts, and then the forest will burn anyway. Russia will have little capital left within its own borders, since its oligarchs prefer to export it to the West.
Russia and Ukraine are now locked into a long-term war of attrition, in which the winner will be the last loser standing. Whether we in the West admit it or not, we too are in that war of attrition. If we’re not prepared to fight it, Russia will indeed be the last loser standing.