RD Interview: Alexander Rodin, associate professor at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), discusses the long-term implications of climate change for Russia’s security and domestic stability.
Russians mark Earth Hour in central Moscow, March 19, 2016. Photo: AP
Climate change and its impact on Russia was one of the problems discussed during the Foresight Fleet, a steamboat trip along the Volga River, from Samara to Astrakhan. It took place on May 15-19 within the framework of Russia’s National Technology Initiative (NTI), announced by Russia President Vladimir Putin during his address to the Federal Assembly in December 2014.
Organized by the Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI) and the Russian Venture Company (RVC), the trip brought together Russian and foreign scholars, entrepreneurs and officials to address Russia’s technological challenges as well as determine future markets where Russia might compete.
As a result of this trip, Alexander Rodin, associate professor at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), and his working group came up with a terraforming project focused on climate engineering in Russia. Such a project would hypothetically allow Russia’s scientists to intervene and change the climate in a desired direction.
Read Russia Direct's report: "Global Warming: Russia Comes in from the Cold"
In the interview below, Rodin discusses climate change and its impact on some Russian regions, ranging from the Arctic to the North Caucasus. He also explains why the Kremlin has not made climate change a priority and what needs to be done to spread awareness about global warming in Russia.
Russia Direct: What is the link between climate change in Russia and its geopolitical security?
Alexander Rodin: Nature, including a severe cold climate and a great inventory of natural resources, has helped Russia to defend its huge territories from the enemy and survive as a civilization for centuries. Nobody was able to endure such severe conditions in the case of invasion from the North.
Today, during a period of precipitous climate change, these conditions are changing as well and they won’t be so extreme anymore. Given the development of sea transportation and infrastructure, these territories might become open and available for external stakeholders in the long term, in 100 years, let’s say, when the temperature will rise in Russia’s Northern Siberia by up to 10 degrees Celsius.
And that could be dangerous from the point of view of geopolitical security. First, there is neither an agreement nor clear legal framework of how to regulate the Arctic territories today among those countries that have claims to this region. Second, there is growing militarization around the Arctic. And the Russian leadership seems to understand that something needs to be done.
On the other hand, these territories are huge indeed and if access to them becomes easier as a result of global climate change, there might be some shifts in the balance of power that has existed there for centuries. This increases the threat of a new global war in the very long term. Today Russia is hardly likely to be able to defend its Arctic territories with the tools of proxy war. It means that any military conflict in this region might be devastating in its implications for the world and Russia in the future.
RD: The living conditions in Africa could worsen a great deal as a result of climate change. What are the odds of people from Africa migrating to other regions like Russia with a more favorable environment?
A.R.: If the current global migration crisis in the Middle East resulted from civil wars and the worsening of socio-economic conditions, climate change could lead to much graver implications, so that it will be impossible to live in this region, with people having no access to water and other indispensible resources.
Alexander Rodin, associate professor at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Photo: Russia Direct
Today there are about 40 extremely hot days per year in North Africa, but by 2100 the number of such days might increase to 250 in the worst-case scenario. In this case, people will have to choose between death and migration to other, more favorable regions. Today Europe is trying to build barriers for refugees from the Arab countries to alleviate the current migration crisis.
But in 100 years South Europe might see a 10 degree Celsius rise in temperature as well, and could turn from a thriving region into a desert, which may, in turn, aggravate the migration crisis and bring even more instability to the region. The poor part of the population that won’t be able to find jobs in South Europe could start moving in search of more favorable places. But today it is very difficult to predict. However, if Europeans start migrating from the South, they might go to Eastern Europe.
RD: What is the probability that these migrants will go to Russia?
A.R.: It is very difficult to predict now, but it seems to me that such a scenario is unlikely, because, first of all, the climate in the majority of Russia will remain cold. The social and political environment in Russia will also be tough enough, which might discourage migrants from coming. There are a lot of examples, which illustrate the level of tensions between locals and migrants in Russia. So, large-scale migration to Russia is unlikely, but I don’t rule out such a scenario. We cannot predict what can happen 20 years from now.
RD: Regarding global warming, is Russia ready to withstand the consequences of climate change?
A.R.: Unfortunately, Russia is not well aware of this problem. Climate change is not among the topics of heated debates, although there was some very robust research in this field during the Soviet era and some world-class research teams continue to work in Russian universities and the Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, today there is neither desire nor enthusiasm from the government to discuss this problem and become familiar with the current research on climate change.
A.R.: It seems to me it stems from the misconception that all specific research and high-quality scholarly knowledge are currently open and easier to access. That’s why the government doesn’t invest in this field of science. However, in my view, it is a big mistake. Those who don’t want to nurture Russia’s science will feed the science of another country.
All expertise in this field primarily comes from the United States and Europe. It is like in the famous saying - those who don’t help their own army will feed the army of someone else. So, I believe that it is important to pay attention to this. Such a big country like Russia, with all its global clout, should have its own national expertise in the field of climate change, which I find vitally important. So far, we have to rely mostly on foreign assessments.
RD: Maybe Russian authorities underestimate the challenge of climate change because of the lack of strategic thinking and narrow planning horizon. What do you think?
A.R.: Of course, politicians won’t make 100-year forecasts, because there is no demand for it now. But, first, centuries are going faster today and, second, there might be black swans (high-impact, low-probability events), which might bring about serious consequences. Despite the fact that the assessment of average climate indicators is very slow, we are witnessing significant or even extreme fluctuations in the climate in some regions. This phenomenon is directly related to global warming.
RD: What Russian regions are the most vulnerable to global warming?
A.R.: First, the regions with acute and extreme climate are in the risk zone. I mean Northern Siberia and the Arctic coast. Second, it is the Northern Caucasus and we should pay a great deal of attention to this, because the glacier melting is a global trend and the Northern Caucasus won’t be an exception. Climate change will also be precipitous there. Given this region’s background, with its social, cultural and demographic peculiarities, the consequences might come fast and they will be very serious.
RD: Could you be more specific?
A.R.: People who have been living in a comfortable and natural environment might move to other Russian regions if this environment is changed extremely. In fact, those who live in the Northern Caucasus might lose their natural habitat and they will be forced to go to other cities. These people will be at a severe disadvantage, with an alien cultural background. Eventually, it might cause a dangerous social unrest. This is a threat for domestic stability.
RD: How do you assess the Foresight Fleet and the Russian National Technology Initiative? To what extent is it helpful to you?
A.R.: It is difficult to assess the quality of the final results of this initiative. It is good that everybody has a chance to express his or her opinion. But the results depend on the competence of those who put all these ideas together in a roadmap and being able to implement them. Of course, it is an effective and easy way to gather diverse opinions, but I am not sure about the results. On the other hand, I am very glad that the Foresight Fleet gives me an opportunity to communicate directly with those involved in the development of national strategies. This is very important.
RD: But will politicians listen to them and be able to implement this initiative?
A.R.: If an expert assessment is competent, politicians will listen to them without a doubt. The other problem is that politicians should take into account the interests of different groups. And science is not so far the top priority for those at the helm. It is necessary to take into account the opinion of society.
RD: The participants of the Foresight Fleet and the National Technology Initiative try to determine future markets, where Russia could be competitive. Given the current geopolitical situation, confrontation with the West, sanctions and the economic crisis, will this move into new technological markets be successful?
A.R.: Russia is a global power and it can compete globally in certain markets. It has its own niches, including defense and natural resources. However, today we need to create our own infrastructure and markets to be independent from those who control these markets. So far we are falling behind, but the NTI can contribute to finding markets, which have not yet been explored. One of them is climate engineering, which would allow intervening and changing climate in a desired direction. I don’t rule out that a global company dealing with climate change will emerge in Russia soon.
RD: Why didn’t it emerge earlier? What prevents Russia from creating such a company now?
A.R.: What prevents this initiative is the absence of necessary infrastructure. Moreover, there is neither a coherent government program on climate change and competence in this field nor public support. Russian society is not aware of global warming or it just doesn’t believe that this threat is real. Such rejection of climate change is also commonplace for the United States. If the government takes the problem of climate change seriously and we start doing something in this direction, there will be opponents, of course.