Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change

  • Published

Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change by Thane Gustafson. Harvard University Press, 2021, 312 pp. 

Climate change will be the defining issue in this century’s international politics. It will shift international trade, drive conflicts, and—at least for some low-lying Pacific islands—be an existential threat.

Thane Gustafson’s Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change seeks to predict the effects on Russia. The book charts a perilous course for the Russian economy and society in the next 30 years, a course beset by the storms of shifting international markets and the shoal waters of poor domestic economic management. That course is only possible without any surprise, world-changing events beyond the COVID-19 pandemic that began as Gustafson completed his book. We are now beset by another world-altering event: Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Klimat has only become more compelling as a result.

Gustafson argues that climate change’s net effects on Russia will be negative (6). There will be benefits, such as marginal improvements in agricultural productivity in parts of Russia and greater access to Arctic waterways, but the costs will surpass these. Melting permafrost will degrade infrastructure across 70 percent of Russia’s landmass (210). Droughts, floods, and extreme weather events will make parts of Russia less habitable and economically productive. This will drive economic migration, pushing rural populations into already crowded cities.

Compounding this problem for Russian policymakers, Gustafson argues that external actors control the economic impact of climate change on Russia. (7) Russian export revenue comes overwhelmingly from hydrocarbons, precisely those resources the world must wean itself from to limit the impact of climate change. Russia’s economic output and its tax revenue are at the whim of governments actively seeking to move their economies away from oil and gas (15, 52). Changes in European policy toward fossil fuels, such as a carbon border tax, would strongly affect Russian exports. Similarly, any change in Chinese demand could radically change Russia’s economic fortunes.

Gustafson predicts that Russia will continue to benefit from its hydrocarbon resources in the short term as the global energy transition slowly builds speed. By the early 2030s, the global demand for fossil fuels will continue to increase, and Russia will remain in a strong economic position (13). But from the 2030s to 2050, the global energy transition will gain steam, and Russian exports of oil, gas, and coal will fall precipitously (13). The result will be a Russian economy short of export revenues, a state short of tax incomes, and a society struggling to cope with the effects of climate change.

All told, Gustafson paints a bleak picture of Russia’s economic future. This future has grown bleaker in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions on Russia’s central bank have obliterated the currency reserves that Russia developed during the last 20 years. This will reduce Russia’s ability to offset the costs of climate change. Shell and BP—major British oil companies—withdrew their Russian investments. The four largest international oilfield servicing firms also left Russia. With these departures, Russia loses the capital to finance the development of its fossil fuel reserves and the technical knowledge to exploit them. This will seriously constrain Russia’s ability to benefit from its natural resources even to the early 2030s horizon that Gustafson predicts. Furthermore, Europe plans to cut Russian gas imports by 66 percent this year and intends to have complete energy independence from Moscow well before 2030. The 10 years of strong fossil fuel exports that Gustafson predicts seem to have burned up, leaving Russia in a much weaker position.

This is not to criticize Gustafson’s work, which provides a sober analysis of the structural factors that will govern Russia’s experience of and ability to respond to climate change. The point is to highlight the precarity of Russia’s economic position until 2050 and its vulnerability to Kremlin mismanagement and outside events. Few predicted Russia would invade Ukraine in 2022, and fewer still predicted the unprecedented scale of economic sanctions the United States, European Union, and others enacted in response.

Russia could only overcome the structural problems that Gustafson highlighted if incredibly skilled and lucky political leaders in the Kremlin worked with all parts of Russian civil society and coordinated with their counterparts in other countries. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his country into a war that puts Russia in opposition to its primary hydrocarbon customers and the source of the high technology the future Russian economy needs.

As we work to understand the world that will emerge after the Russo-Ukraine War, I strongly recommend Klimat for the insights it provides on Russia’s future, climate change, and the future of international relations.

Ian T. Sundstrom

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."