Russian Heat Wave to Spur Climate Innovation?

Up until this summer, if there was one country that might be forgiven for feeling a little blasé about climate change, it would probably be Russia. A nation transected by the Arctic Circle and famous for its cold winter temperatures, this enormous country and sizable producer of carbon emissions might reasonably have expected to even enjoy a few benefits from global warming—balmier summers and a longer growing season, perhaps.

Not anymore.

Ironically in these last few months, Russia may have felt the effects of climate change in a more direct way than any other large economy has to date. This summer has seen record temperatures in Russia that have devastated the country’s agriculture, led to a spike in drownings as people try to escape the heat, and caused the largest wildfires Russia has experienced in probably a hundred years or more. Will the events of this summer spur Russia to step up efforts to cut carbon emissions? And could similar extreme weather events around the world inspire a wave of low-carbon innovation as the effects of climate change start to hit home?

Up to this point, Russia has been one of the world’s major economy least anxious to see action taken to prevent climate change. Last year Russian President Dmitri Medvedev refused to commit to reducing Russia’s carbon emissions in the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations. That fall a state-owned Russian television channel launched a campaign to discredit climate change science, effectively feeding the public variations on the arguments of climate science deniers. Yet the summer heat wave already seems to have had an effect: over the past few weeks President Medvedev has been calling on policymakers and heads of organizations to respond to the threat of climate change and prepare for a future of global warming.

Medvedev appears to be spot-on in attributing the disastrous heat wave to climate change. Obviously no one can say with complete certainty that wildfires and heat-related disasters in Russia are due to rising global temperatures. But climate experts seem to agree the heat wave would likely not have happened—or would have been much less severe—if it weren’t for human activities causing the climate to warm. Dr. Michael Tobis of the University of Texas has gone so far as to say Russia’s heat wave may be “the first disaster unequivocally attributable” to climate change caused by human activities.

It’s too early to tell if Russia will really make a greater commitment to reduce carbon emissions in the wake of the 2010 heat wave. Yet the early signs suggest Russian decision makers are becoming more open to action on climate change. Russian entrepreneurs have a chance to fill new demand for climate solutions, and jumpstart a transition to cleaner energy sources in this country. What’s your opinion: will the extreme weather of 2010 spur a wave of low-carbon innovation in Russia? What about other countries also experiencing severe heat this summer?

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Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.