Thane Gustafson, Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021). 321 pages. Maps.
If you are travelling to Russia anytime soon (and I realize that you most likely are not), do not expect to see houses with solar panels on their roofs in the cities or electric cars on the roads. Russia has very few of either. Most people live in apartment blocks and there are few intercity roads for cars or trucks to travel on. Trains are standard modes of intercity transportation. If you are visiting family or friends, you’ll likely find their houses stuffy and overheated, as though burning fuels was a matter of little concern. Your first impression would be the correct one: Russia is a country little concerned about climate change and even less active in mitigating it.
As is often the case, the irony is that Russians should be more concerned than most of us. The country is warming “two-and-a-half times faster than . . . the rest of the world (p. 14).” “Two-thirds of Russian territory is founded on permafrost,” which is “an unstable mixture of sand, ice, and methane” (pp. 5, 160). Melting would release great volumes of methane and have an effect on towns somewhat like an earthquake.
This fact-filled and vivid book reveals exactly what Russia’s problem is: it is a petrostate with an economy utterly dependent on the demand for hydrocarbons in the rest of the world. This economic situation overwhelms serious considerations of climate threat in Russia, and it is out of the country’s control.
The Russian economy will ultimately be driven by the diminishing demand for petroleum products in the world. Its fate will be sealed by the climate mitigation efforts taken by the rest of us. One might ask, could Russia, located in the far north as it is, not benefit from global warming? Trade routes in the Arctic will open, and agriculture might creep northward. Alas, as Gustafson points out, the good soils are in the southern part of the country, and to benefit from increased trade the economy will need something to trade besides fossil fuels.
Gustafson’s focus is not so much on Russia’s climate as on its economy and the effects of climate change on each sector of the economy. Separate chapters examine oil, natural gas, coal, renewable energy, and agriculture. There is also a very interesting chapter on the Arctic. Biographical consideration of leading Russian businessmen makes the studies of industries memorable.
The bottom line, so to speak, is that even after the disastrous war in Ukraine is over, Russia will have little to look forward to, and, in my view, its status as a world power will rely almost entirely on its being among the few countries which have nuclear arsenals.
We need a solid and comprehensive and readable book like Gustafson’s on every country in the world, and then it will be clearer how to deal with climate change.
Mark E. Neely, Jr.
Member of the State College Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby