When Russia and the US agree on something, you know it must be serious.
This week, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled quietly to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Ruslan Edelgeriev, his aim was not to talk about the usual thorny issues – cyber attacks and election meddling – but a bigger, more existential threat that will affect them both: climate change.
US-Russia relations tumbled to a low point under the presidency of Donald Trump. Not much has really improved, yet Kerry’s trip to Moscow, so early on in the Biden presidency, is a notable sign the Cold War foes could get on the same page about this one thing, if little else.
As the world’s second and sixth biggest polluters, respectively, the United States and Russia agreed on the need to step up on climate action, and said they would work together to tackle the challenge.
The meeting – and a later one with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – struck a very different tone to last month’s frosty summit between Biden and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lavrov addressed Kerry as “dear John” and said his visit was an “important and positive signal for the development of our bilateral relations.”
Lola Vallejo, the climate program director at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, said the announcement was a testament to Biden’s commitment on climate.
“They’re willing to overcome a very difficult bilateral situation to still have a very high level communication channel on this topic,” Vallejo told CNN.
The trip underscored the U-turn America has made on climate since Biden moved into the White House. While Trump abandoned America’s role in global climate talks, and removed the country from the Paris Agreement, Biden is a self-styled climate action leader.
But Kerry’s visit also illustrated a major shift in Russia’s climate policy.
“In terms of climate action, [Russia] is usually seen as a blocker in international negotiations,” Vallejo said.
“So even if, at this stage, it’s merely a change in discourse, it’s still positive that there is such a high level conversation on the importance of climate change and a reaffirmed commitment.”
For a long time, Russia was one of the countries that argued climate change wasn’t all that bad. Putin once joked, back in 2003, that global warming looked OK from a Siberian point of view, suggesting Russians there might “spend less on fur coats” in the future.
The rise in temperatures did bring Russia some economic benefits. The shrinking of the Arctic ice has opened up new shipping routes for Russia and enabled natural resources exploration in previously inaccessible areas. Warmer temperatures in some parts of the country made the growing seasons longer, boosting agricultural production. There’s also less need for heating as the number of cold days decreases.
But Moscow’s calculation is beginning to change as Russia increasingly experiences first hand the devastating effects of climate change.
A 2010 heat wave caused 55,000 deaths in Russia, a 25% drop in annual crop production and a total economic loss of more than $15 billion, according to a study by the University of Oxford.
Meanwhile, melting permafrost in Siberia is causing serious damage to strategic infrastructure. Last year, an oil tank built on the unstable soil collapsed because of the thaw, leading to one of the worst oil spills ever in the region. Wildfires in Siberia have caused losses of nearly 69 billion Russian rubles ($1 billion) between 2016 and 2019, according to the Russian government.
“The impacts of climate change have become far more pressing and acute and obvious to even those governments that were not necessarily minded to pay attention to them,” Vallejo said, “and while it’s hard to say how sincere [Russia] is and how much the actions are actually going to move forward, it’s fair to say that there’s probably a more authentic sense of urgency and alarm regarding climate change.”
Words not followed by action
The announcement that Russia and the US expressed desire to work together is encouraging. But in climate policy, action matters. And Russia hasn’t yet aligned its new climate enthusiasm with its actions.
“They are using the language of climate so much more in their official rhetoric, their strategic documents, but the problem is their implementation is going in the opposite direction, they’re doubling down on fossil fuel production over the next decade,” said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russia depends on its oil and gas industry for about a third of its federal budget. The sector is key for its finances, but also its role in the region as a major energy supplier has helped Russia maintain its influence over Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War.
While Russia has joined the Paris Climate Agreement and agreed to lower its carbon emissions — albeit by nowhere near enough to bring it in line with its Paris pledge — it is certainly not planning to phase out fossil fuels any time soon. It’s perhaps no surprise that Kerry and Edelgeriev made no concrete climate announcements this week.
“Getting Russia to adjust its economic model, in my view, is a fool’s errand,” Conley said, suggesting instead that any cooperation between the two countries will likely focus on climate change mitigation, tackling issues like wildfires or thawing permafrost.
“We have excellent permafrost thaw engineers, so does Russia. We are both equally challenged and our scientists and our engineers can work together to find collaborative solutions,” she said.
But Russia is also aware that climate change is increasingly dominating global political discussions and that if it doesn’t get involved, it risks being left behind.
Vallejo said Russia’s current engagement on climate might be motivated by pragmatism.
“I don’t think Russia suddenly discovered it had a huge interest in the fate of the planet but it speaks to the fact that climate change has become a real concrete geopolitical issue,” she said.
Russia has grown more isolated over the past decade. The US has imposed various sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses since the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea. The reasons for them vary from human rights abuses to Russia’s hostile foreign policy.
Putin wants Russia to be seen as a global power and climate could be his way back into the global community.
“Mr. Putin was very glad that he was invited to the virtual climate summit that President Biden hosted,” Conley said.
“He is at the table, he is not isolated, he is talking about these big issues, he is using the language, saying that Russia understand the changes coming, but [he is] absolutely not prepared to take any of the internal action that is required.”
In the climate community, that kind of attitude has a name. It’s called greenwashing.