Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change 
by Thane Gustafson.
Harvard, 312 pp., £31.95, October 2021, 978 0 674 24743 7
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One​ of the perverse side effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine has been to increase the Kremlin’s revenues from natural resources. While the US, EU and UK sought to halt their imports of Russian fossil fuels, other countries – principally India and China – stepped up their purchases. By August, Russia was making up to $800 million a day from oil and gas, muffling the impact of Western sanctions. Yet while in the short term the surge in oil prices has benefited Russia, in the long run its prospects as an energy exporter look less solid. Last year, the EU imported 40 per cent of its natural gas from Russia – the figure for Germany was 55 per cent – but even before the war the European Commission had announced measures that would deprive Russia of that income, including plans to decarbonise by 2050. This process has now been accelerated: in mid-May, the EU announced a $210 billion plan to switch away from Russian energy sources over the next five years. For European countries, weaning themselves off Russian fuel is proving to be painfully expensive and has contributed to the price hikes. Even so, there’s no going back.

Thane Gustafson’s Klimat was published twelve months ago, but although much has changed since the invasion of Ukraine, the effects of the war so far on Russia’s main exports – short-term gain, long-term disadvantage – align with his arguments about the consequences of climate change for Russia. The world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter, Russia has greater combined oil and gas reserves than Saudi Arabia and will continue to profit from rising oil prices for several more years. But as the world shifts to alternative energy sources – Gustafson projects a peak in global demand for fossil fuels around 2030, followed by a swift decline – its hydrocarbon revenues will dwindle. What’s more, Russia is more vulnerable than most to the environmental impacts of climate change. ‘Temperatures are rising 2.5 times faster in Russia than in the rest of the world,’ Gustafson writes. A fifth of its vast territorial extent lies north of the Arctic Circle, comprising some of the biomes most liable to be damaged by rising temperatures. Permafrost has been thawing with alarming speed, and Russia’s forests and steppes have already proven susceptible to drought and fire.* As Gustafson puts it, ‘Russia is already one of the chief causes of climate change; but as time goes on, it will also be one of its chief victims.’

Gustafson is a Russian energy specialist, the author of books on Soviet gas and oil (Crisis amid Plenty, 1989), the post-Soviet transformations of the Russian oil business (Wheel of Fortune, 2012) and the role of natural gas in East-West relations (The Bridge, 2020). In 1995 he co-wrote, with Daniel Yergin, Russia 2010 and What It Means for the World, which laid out various scenarios for what then seemed a distant future. (They included full-blown territorial break-up, a resoundingly successful free-market transition, and the advent of an expansionist military dictatorship.) In Klimat, Gustafson’s temporal reach is greater: he considers probable trends in planetary emissions and progress towards greener energy over the next thirty years. But he sees little room for manoeuvre where Russia is concerned. ‘In the age of climate change,’ he writes, ‘Russia’s extractive export model, which has prevailed for the past thirty years, will be less and less sustainable. And, simultaneously, the country’s options to deal with the consequences will be increasingly limited.’

Thanks to its dependence on fossil fuel exports Russia has so far made only minimal investments in most of the available alternative technologies. (The exception is nuclear power, where Russia is a major player. But the green credentials of nuclear energy remain hotly debated; Germany recently opted to restart its coal-fired power stations rather than reverse Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to phase out its nuclear reactors.) At the same time, Russia will find it hard to make profits from fossil fuels: the Western Siberian fields that powered the petro-boom of the past twenty years are in decline, and other deposits – ‘blue oil’ offshore in the Arctic, for example – will require huge investment and access to expensive foreign technology, both of which have been largely out of reach since Western sanctions were levied after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Oil and gas are not Russia’s only exports, of course. There are other raw materials: grain, coal, nickel, aluminium and other metals. In each of these areas, Russia recovered from the economic disarray of the 1990s to become a significant player in the global market in the 2000s and 2010s – in the case of agriculture thanks in large part to targeted state support. In 2020, Russia was the world’s largest exporter of wheat, the largest exporter of nickel and the third largest exporter of coal. Yet according to Gustafson, none of these exports will generate enough revenue to compensate for the downward slide of oil and gas after peak demand is reached in 2030. Where agriculture is concerned, the problem – astonishing for a country Russia’s size – is a lack of cultivable land, which climate change is likely to exacerbate. The band of agriculturally viable terrain is slender: ‘Some estimates put the share of actual productive land at about 5 per cent of the total land area.’ Two-thirds of Russia’s land area is permafrost, and while one or two degrees of warming will thaw its upper layers, that won’t lead to more farmland: the apparent gains will come in northern areas with thinner and less fertile soil. The current heartlands of Russian agriculture to the south, meanwhile, will suffer scorching heat and drought.

Gustafson identifies ‘two opposing narratives about the Far North’, one focused on trying to shield the region from the dangers posed by climate change, the other on the gains to be made from the economic development of the coastline that will be enabled by ice-free seas. No prizes for guessing which of these two lines of thinking the Russian state has embraced: the prospect of commercial traffic plying the Northern Sea Route from the Bering Strait to Novaya Zemlya has conjured visions of a thriving, industrialised Arctic Coast, built largely around the export of natural gas from terminals close to the giant Bovanenkovo gas field on the Yamal Peninsula.

This scenario stands in stark contrast to the situation in inland areas of the Russian Arctic, which have been in economic and demographic decline since the late Soviet period, and where the situation has been made worse by the effects of climate change. In half-empty cities and towns, buildings already in disrepair are collapsing and vital roads and railways are buckling due to melting permafrost. In the taiga, indigenous livelihoods are threatened by flooding and brushfires. Yet although Gustafson describes these two Arctic scenarios as contrasting ‘narratives’, they’re causally interconnected – not parallel realities, but a single spiral of development and disaster.

As Gustafson sees it, Russian state policy is clearly putting the question of human survival second to oil and gas exports. But much of the human damage wrought by climate change will be indirect, in the form of ripple effects from political and technological shifts occurring elsewhere. The global transition to green(er) energy, which will eventually result in a ‘massive loss of wealth’ for Russia, ‘will affect Russian citizens at all levels but will especially impact the state, depriving it of the means to reform the economy or to address the increasingly serious direct effects of climate change on people’s lives’.

This projected downgrading of the role of the state would have profound political-economic implications. It would break with a centuries-old pattern of state hypertrophy, which since early modern times has shaped Russia’s trajectory, accounting both for the prominence of geopolitical and military concerns in its statecraft, and for the weakness of civil society (Antonio Gramsci called it ‘gelatinous’). The invasion of Ukraine may seem a traditional instance of Great Power projection, but it was partly a response to the diminution of Russian power Gustafson foresees – an overcompensation by aggressive military means for a decline that has been underway for three decades. A dwindling of Russian state capacity is not necessarily going to lead to a decrease in its use of force. If anything, the opposite may be true: force will become increasingly necessary to secure revenues and resources as the power of the state declines. Similar arguments have been made about the end of US hegemony – the difference being that the Russian case is not so hypothetical. It’s too much of a stretch to link the invasion of Ukraine directly to climate change, but in future the line between conflicts sparked by ecological fallout and those driven by other geopolitical motivations will become more blurred.

There are historical ironies lurking in Gustafson’s predictions. One is that the reduced state capacity he predicts is in part a consequence of Russia’s transition to capitalism and its integration into world markets. In other words, it is a product of what many Western leaders and experts would in 1991 have interpreted as a resounding success. Gustafson writes approvingly of the reorganisation of key sectors of the Russian economy, which under Putin were ‘reconsolidated by a mix of state and private initiatives’ and ‘modernised and expanded’. But ‘the very changes that have improved Russia’s economy over the past two decades ultimately make it more vulnerable to – and less able to adapt to – the challenges of climate change.’ This should be no surprise: the changes Gustafson describes involved the expansion of Russia’s role as a supplier of raw materials to a global economy driven by fossil fuels. He argues that this was ‘a rational policy’, given rising energy prices and Russia’s resources, but it is rational only in the context of a particular system, which has itself proved highly irrational, to say the least, in addressing the climate crisis.

While Gustafson is right to complain that the influx of money from oil and gas hasn’t been reinvested to help shift the economy away from hydrocarbons, it’s not as though it has been spent on decent wages or expanding basic welfare provisions. Disparities of wealth and income in Russia remain vast. Over the past three decades, Russian companies and individuals have expatriated billions, both legally and illegally. Gustafson cites a 2017 study by Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman which found that ‘the wealth held offshore by rich Russians is about three times larger than official net foreign reserves.’ (This explains why Cyprus is the top destination for Russian foreign investment: in 2021 the island accounted for 70 per cent of the total.) For Gustafson, such short-sightedness is a blot on an otherwise decent economic performance. But these accumulations of private wealth are not an incidental detail: they are an integral feature of the post-Soviet economic model, and have been central to the creation and survival of Russia’s elite.

This brings me to another irony. Amid the escalating climate emergency, and the failure of market models to conjure the reductions in emissions needed to stave off runaway warming, many ecologists have argued for a return to state planning – what Andreas Malm, evoking the early years of the Soviet system, has called ‘eco-Leninism’ or ‘Gosplan 2.0’. Yet the debate around the ecological benefits of Soviet-style planning comes at a moment when Gosplan is barely a memory in its original homeland, and when Russia itself is hurtling in the opposite direction, deepening its commitment to the extraction of fossil-fuel profits on the world market. In 2021, Gustafson notes, Russian official discourse began to stress the need for joint global action to reduce emissions, and Russia sent the fifth-largest delegation to the COP26 gathering. But this was window-dressing, and it has been unceremoniously tossed aside since the invasion of Ukraine.

The idea that Soviet-style planning could furnish any kind of ecological model may seem contradictory, given the often disastrous impacts of the original: the shrinkage of the Aral Sea, the desertification of the Kazakh steppe after Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign, not to mention widespread industrial pollution and nuclear contamination. (And this is leaving aside Promethean schemes that didn’t happen, such as a 1950s plan to reverse the flow of several Siberian rivers.) Yet the Soviet system harboured strong conservationist currents and produced a great deal of serious ecological thought, as Douglas Weiner and other historians have shown; environmental movements were also prominent in the early phase of glasnost.

The core appeal of Soviet-style planning is less the system’s record than the possibility of extending state power over the economy for ecological ends. The state remains, after all, crucial in bringing about shifts in energy use and tilting the financial field in favour of alternative technologies. It would also be central to overseeing a more equitable distribution of resources, assuming this ever moves up the political agenda.

Yet here we run into a deeper problem. What kind of political agency, in any country, can assert control over capitalism run amok – and who is going to summon it into being? The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, with its limited ecological gains accompanied by massive fossil-fuel carve-outs, demonstrated the shortcomings of liberal democratic representative institutions in addressing the challenges of climate change. The EU’s May 2022 climate plan was billed as a move to accelerate the transition to green energy, but it too envisages hefty investments in fossil fuel infrastructure (partly to process the increased amounts of liquid natural gas that will be required to compensate for the loss of Russian gas). Getting states to adopt the kind of economic planning imagined by eco-socialists and advocates of degrowth will require profound political transformations. Not the least of them may be the assertion of popular sovereignty over the economy – not via the existing state apparatus, but in the face of resistance from it, and as part of the creation of a new kind of state. In this respect, Russia may hold other lessons for climate politics: will we have to pass through a period, as Russia did in 1917, in which parallel authorities contend for control of the state – a planetary version of what Lenin called ‘dual power’?

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