Russian wildfires: No winners from climate change

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A commonly heard comment in climate change discussions has been that the benefits of climate change – milder winters, increased agricultural productivity -- also have to be acknowledged. Russia and Canada, it has often been argued, could be economic “winners” from climate change due to easier access to ocean shipping routes, longer growing seasons, and the space and water necessary to increase agricultural production. A 2008 report of the U.S. National Intelligence Council notes that Russia “has the potential to gain the most from increasingly temperate weather”, citing easier access to Siberian energy reserves and an Arctic waterway. This idea was popular with some Russian scientists and politicians, who as recently as the past year questioned whether reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were necessary. Image


While consideration of benefits is appropriately included in economic studies of climate change, the recent heat waves and wildfires in Russia illustrate the limitations in thinking this way. The July heat wave – the worst in the
130 year record -- brought Moscow temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, destroyed crops on an estimated 25 million acres (about the size of Iceland), and led to intense fires across the country wiping out entire villages. Burning peat fields darkened the skies and filled the air with high levels of pollution. Breathing the outside air for an hour in Moscow is now reported to be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes. In response to this, and other climate-related production declines in the EU and Canada, grain prices have risen 90 %. In order to protect domestic markets, Russia has banned grain exports.


So what about the offsetting potential for increasing production in Siberia? Not so easy. The first problem is to be sufficiently confident of future weather patterns to justify making major investments in infrastructure when the climate is changing and perhaps not stable, much less predictable. One finding of the recently released World Bank’s Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change (EACC) study is that while many adaptation measures make sense today, large, long-lived investments in infrastructure should probably await improved climate forecasts.  Moreover, the adjustment costs would be enormous in human as well as economic terms, and probably politically unacceptable.


Finally, a further limitation of economic analysis recognized in the EACC study is the difficulty in quantifying social impacts and the loss of ecosystem services, neither of which can be effectively monetized with current methodologies.


So what can and Russia do to protect itself from the impacts of climate change? The first step is to invest in making current infrastructure more resilient to documented climate variability. Second, to invest in the agricultural sector so as to reap the gains of a warmer/wetter climate, invest in better forest and fire management, and finally, in gathering better weather and climate data. Given the size of Russia, greater participation in global climate science has both international and national benefits specific to Russia's economy and ecology. This is a pre-requisite for identifying mal-adaptations (such as draining the peat bogs leading to the current fires outside Moscow) and “no regrets” opportunities for risk reduction (e.g., improving the efficiency of water utilization). Less immediately, it is apparent that Russia will need to enhance its institutional capacity for climate risk management and disaster preparedness .


A further victim of this summer’s Russian fires should therefore be the idea of winners from climate change.


Alan Miller

Principal Project Officer

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