In a Warming World, Russia Comes Out On Top
As the war in Ukraine continues and Western economies move to distance themselves from Russian fuel sources, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has time and a hotter planet on his side. Temperatures in the Arctic are going up four times faster than the global warming average, giving Russia shipping access to waters that for centuries have been ice-bound. Massive gas reserves, like the ones on the Yamal Peninsula, are now being developed as the Northern Sea Route becomes increasingly accessible. Last year, Russia announced it would keep the passage open year-round with the help of ice-breaking ships. Recent studies predict that by 2035, the Arctic could be free of sea ice.
ABC: Earth's north and south poles are 50-70 degrees above normal, March 23, 2022.
CBS: The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else, scientists say, January 8, 2022.
CBC: Russian invasion heightens concerns around Arctic sovereignty, February 25, 2022.
Why This Matters
A navigable Arctic means Russia can sell its fossil fuel products to other non-Western buyers, like China and India. Both nations have increased their spending on Russian oil, making the financial impact of Western sanctions matter far less. In fact, Russia recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as China’s top oil supplier.
As Stephen Lezak writes for the New Republic: "The ongoing violence in Ukraine can only be understood within the new geopolitics of the Anthropocene. Climate change has been, and remains, the polestar of Putin’s decade-long turn away from the West.”
Sky News: 'On thin ice: Rising tensions in the Arctic,’ July 8, 2022.
The B1M: Why Russia is Building an Arctic Silk Road, January 19, 2022.
ABC: US, Russia vie for superiority in Arctic Circle, March 14, 2022.
Warmer Temperatures Are Russia’s Gain
The climate crisis is poised to make Russia more hospitable to agriculture and turn it into a giant for food production and an even bigger political force, as New York Times Magazine laid out in vivid detail. Some of Russia’s other anticipated gains include more temperatures in the ideal range for human life, increased agricultural production, and fewer people and locations vulnerable to sea level rise.
The land within Russia’s official borders is huge, measuring 6.602 million square miles, nearly twice the size of the US right now. Much of that land is inhospitably cold, but former places of icy exile like Siberia are warming up and could become livable and farmable land. Russia sits north of the latitude line that analysts have marked delineating growth or decline as the earth warms, effectively giving the country room to expand into former frozen wilderness.
CBS: How climate change could benefit Russia, December 18, 2020.
CaspianReport: How climate change benefits Russia, July 19, 2019.
VICE: Russia Is Profiting Off Global Warming, March 8, 2018.
The End of the Climate Policy Era: Or The Beginning?
Currently, many countries are working to expand fossil fuel sources as a means to quickly and smoothly break dependence on Russian oil, but the renewed global focus on energy security does not need to be a negative force for the climate. Instead, it could provide a direct route to emissions cuts and by bypassing diplomatic inadequacies altogether, allow the world to build the infrastructural basis needed for the energy transition. As Ted Nordhaus writes in Foreign Policy:
The confluence of war in Europe with a global energy security crisis reminds us that the West is not so different from the rest of the world. For better or worse, energy development and security remain the coin of the realm. Any global strategy to build a bulwark against ethnonationalist authoritarianism, achieve economic stability, and transition toward a low-carbon future will need to accommodate itself to that reality.
Channel 4: How Greenland's massive ice melt will totally transform the world, September 11, 2019.
Jason Box: Arctic warming 3x faster than the globe, November 3, 2021.