As temperatures in Russia climb to historic highs, parching crops and igniting large tracts of forest and peatland, analysts are watching to see if these conditions heat up the country's climate change policies.
"I don't know what it would take to produce an active stance on climate change in Russia, but I hope this is enough," said Samuel Charap, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress who studies Russian climate and energy policy.
Recent comments made by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev link climate change and the wildfires, stoking speculation about what Russia may bring to the table in the next round of international climate talks. But once the wildfires' smoke clears, they may not amount to much, according to Alexey Kokorin, the Moscow-based climate negotiator for the World Wildlife Fund.
Medvedev said in a public speech last week, "Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions," according to a published transcript of the speech. "This means that we need to change the way we work, and change the methods that we used in the past," he said.
In another speech, Medvedev said these events must act as a "wake-up call" for heads of state and social organizations, "in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate," as reported by TIME.
"These are not brave statements for European leaders or Obama, but for a Russian president, it's a new statement," said WWF's Kokorin. Even last year, Medvedev's speeches on climate change were more about helping other continents like Europe and Asia without really focusing on the negative and severe impacts for Russia itself, he said.
Changes at home, but not in Bonn
Still, it will likely take more than the fires to spark a more aggressive emission reduction commitment from Russia, Kokorin said. "I don't expect it will change their international climate talk stance this year because their negotiations are very pragmatic and economic-based," he said. Russian officials have taken the stance in earlier climate talks that committing to curb larger amounts of emissions could hamper the country's economic growth and that does not appear to be changing.
At international climate talks last winter in Copenhagen, Denmark, the country proposed committing to a 15 to 25 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 based on 1990 levels. The environmental community widely viewed that number as inadequate.
During the most recent round of climate talks in Bonn, Germany, the wildfires were already ablaze, and it did not change how Russia approached the talks, according to Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The representative his organization had at the talks saw no change in the Russian negotiators' position, he said.
While an isolated natural event cannot be ascribed to climate change, the current Russian heat wave and floods in Pakistan and China are all consistent with climate change predictions, according to Jeff Knight, climate variability scientist at the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre.
Medvedev has taken steps in the last year to shine light on climate policy for his country, rolling out a "climate doctrine" for his country's approach to the issue and urging the Russian government to back the doctrine with new laws and regulations. Thus far, however, his words have not translated into action, said Charap. That may be because the public interest in moving on this issue has not been there, he said. "Hopefully, there will be an increase in public awareness now," he said.
After much of the Soviet Union's military-heavy industry collapsed in the late 1990s, the country's emissions dropped far below the baseline level established by the Kyoto Protocol, allowing Russia to stockpile billions of dollars' worth of emissions allowances without actively greening its industry.
Is a little warming still good?
Since then, Russian climate policy has traditionally been shoved to the back burner while public pressure to act remained low and climate skepticism remained high. Just last November, Russia's state-owned Channel 1 aired a documentary challenging the human link to climate change, titled "The History of Deception: Global Warming," according to Charap.
The country's climate stance has also reflected the belief that a little global warming could be a good thing. A 2007 Russian U.N. Development Programme report, for example, suggested the benefits of Russia warming 2 or 3 degrees Celsius might include "higher agricultural yields, lower winter human mortality ... lower heating requirements, and a potential boost to tourism" (ClimateWire, June 23, 2009).
This summer's wildfires, which covered 175,000 hectares as of Monday, have killed 52 people, according to Russian government numbers. The fires have also caused flight delays and prompted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ban all grain exports in an effort to stave off some of the inevitable price increases. In previous years, wildfires routinely occurred in more remote Siberian forests, but drought and extreme heat in the Western regions of the country this year have caused more fires to spring up in areas around Moscow.
"The important thing is, wildfires have made this a social issue and caused disruption with a loss of crops and the long-term potential not only of destruction of agricultural lands, but of their forestlands," said David Burwell, director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "These things are beginning to gain the attention of not just Medvedev but the media and the rest of the bureaucracy, including Putin."
While NRDC's Schmidt said that he hopes this summer's heat will spur action on more ambitious domestic climate policies, he added that it is difficult to gauge what will move Russian political sentiments. Trying to guess that information is "like trying to read blindfolded," he said.