Russian fires prompt Kremlin to make u-turn and embrace climate change

MOSCOW — Russia's heat wave, along with its disastrous fallout, finally may have persuaded the Kremlin to combat climate change.

Russian officials, who until now have resisted dramatic action out of fears it would dampen economic growth, lately have issued strong statements linking global warming to the emergency Russia is facing. Some hope the abrupt change of tune will result in more effective environmental policies, even after the smog dies down.

"There is no question that we need to get ahead of climate change," said Vladimir Slivyak, a co-chair of Ecodefense, a grassroots Russian environmental group. "This is a wake-up call."

The crisis, which seems to have taken the Kremlin by surprise, features a fierce and unremitting heat wave that's now well into its second month, a drought that's ruined as much as a third of the vitally important grain crop and a wave of seemingly uncontrollable wildfires that have blanketed half of European Russia, including the capital Moscow, in a cloud of smoke.

Russia's state meteorological service said smog conditions in Moscow have eased from a Saturday peak, but the Ministry of Emergency Services warned that Moscow-region fires have tripled size in the past week, spreading from 65 to 210 hectares. Meanwhile, an average of 700 people are dying per day in Moscow, double the average rate, which health officials blamed on the smog.

"Our country has not experienced such a heat wave in the last 50 or even 100 years," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week in a speech published in English on the Kremlin's website. "We need to learn our lessons from what has happened, and from the unprecedented heat wave that we have faced this summer.

"Everyone is talking about climate change now," he continued. "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 in the past. This means that we need to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past."

Those are arguably the strongest words about climate change that a Kremlin leader has ever delivered to a domestic audience.

Moscow has taken a strong rhetorical stand at international meetings since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threw Russia's support behind the Kyoto climate change treaty six years ago, when he was president.

At home last year, however, Medvedev said Russia probably would be generating 30 percent more carbon dioxide by 2020, in line with the country's rapid industrial "modernization" program, and added that, "We will not let anyone cut our development potential."

Kremlin leaders also have suggested that climate change might turn out to Russia's benefit, for example in the race for natural resources previously trapped beneath the melting Arctic icecap, or by opening a new northeast navigation channel from Asia to Europe across the top of Siberia.

"This same president (Medvedev) recently told an audience in Siberia that Russia didn't need to restrict its carbon emissions, that it hampered our development and was a scheme that favored Western countries," said Slivyak, who noted that the Kremlin's official Climate Doctrine, prepared for the Russian delegation to last December's Copenhagen conference on climate change, had no practical guide to action.

"Until this crisis, the official view of climate change was ambivalent," he said. "Now we hear many officials talking about it as the cause of what's happening, and that's progress. But I fear that once the emergency has passed, they will forget all about it."

Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow agreed that the traditional laxity of Russian officialdom is likely to squelch the impulse to take long-term measures once the present crisis has abated.

One painfully relevant precedent, he says, is what happened after the peat bogs surrounding Moscow caught fire in 1972, suffocating the city under a similar blanket of smog for many days. In the wake of that disaster, Soviet authorities acknowledged that their policy of draining marshes in order to harvest peat for fuel was to blame, and they pledged to take steps to avoid any repetition.

"Those same peat bogs are burning today, with the same terrible consequences, because Soviet leaders let it go," Petrov said. "Although the problem in 1972 was relatively simple and easily solvable, they set it aside as soon as the immediate trouble passed. Today the threat is long-term and complex, and it will require major policy and behavioral changes. I wouldn't bet that this change of official mood will last long."

Weir is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.