When a squall tore through Mos- cow at the end of May, the toll was unusually high: The fierce gales killed 18 people and injured scores more, officials say, and inflictedabout$3.5billionindam-
ages in Russia’s capital region.
Now, there’s another casualty.
Earlier this month, Russia’s government
fired the head of its weather forecasting
agency, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring,
or Roshydromet. Alexander Frolov, 65, had
surpassed the mandatory retirement age
for civil servants, but the real reason he was
forced out, observers say, was Roshydromet’s
failure to anticipate the late-May storm’s intensity and warn Muscovites accordingly. His
ousting also sent a message to the environment ministry, Roshydromet’s overseer. The
state prosecutor’s office, according to the
newspaper Kommersant, demanded that the
ministry take steps to increase the accuracy
of forecasts in light of a changing climate.
The new charge to the environment min-
istry reflects a sea change in Russia’s views
about climate change and how the nation
must respond. Politicians have acknowledged
that extreme weather events have doubled
over the past 25 years, to 590 in 2016, and
that average temperatures are rising, particu-
larly in the Arctic. Yet until recently, tackling
climate change was a low priority for the fed-
eral government. One reason is complacence,
because Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions
have already plummeted since the collapse
of the Soviet Union. Another is political:
Russia’s economy depends heavily on
pumping oil and gas out of the ground.
Many influential voices here routinely
debunked climate change, and some Russian
newspapers in recent years chalked up
climate variability to a mythical U.S. weapon
aimed at Russia, or as a foreign plot aimed at
Russia’s energy exports.
That thinking has gone out the window. “We have already witnessed [climate
change] effects this summer and we need
to prepare for more damage to come,” says
Anton Kulbachevsky, the head of Moscow
city’s environmental committee. He says
that climate-related economic damage in the
Moscow region, home to 20 million people,
is expected to reach $4.3 billion a year by
2025, a figure comparable to the national
toll, on average, in recent years.
Unease spread nationwide this summer,
after forest fires razed 4.6 million hectares
of Siberian taiga and flooding ravaged the
Far East. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus has made gains in southern Russia, and
tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease are
spreading in the north. Officials as well as
scientists blame those disturbing patterns
on climate change. “Climate change is a real
threat for Russia, and the country and its regions urgently need to start adapting to it,
building resilience,” Larisa Korepanova, a
senior official at the natural resources ministry, said at a climate forum organized by
the city of Moscow and held there in August.
That’s exactly what a draft adaptation
plan for the Moscow region aims to do.
Unveiled at the forum, the strategy takes
stock of which sectors are most vulnerable
to climate change, recommends adaptation
measures, and estimates compliance costs.
The draft plan lauds the high resilience it
sees in the city’s power grids, housing complexes, and transportation networks. But it
raises the specter of more frequent and pronounced heat waves that would sicken or kill
rising numbers of Muscovites and decimate
greenery, as well as worsening air quality
that would erode health.
In 2010, Moscow experienced a preview
of what it may have to adapt to on a regular basis. Over 44 days that summer, sweltering temperatures, as well as particulates
from forest fires and smog, resulted in nearly
11,000 deaths in the Moscow region, mainly
among people over 65 years old, says Boris
Revich, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’s environmental health laboratory in
Moscow. To better cope with heat waves, the
adaptation plan calls for modernizing hospitals, establishing free water supplies, and ensuring that senior centers and kindergartens
have air conditioning.
Although Russia is bracing for climate
change, it has shown little desire to rein in
carbon emissions. It intends to ratify the
Paris climate accord in 2019 or 2020, the
president’s climate adviser recently confirmed. But the country can afford to do little
and still meet its emissions pledges for 2020
to 2030, which range from 25% to 30% below
1990 levels. Russia is already running 30%
below levels in 1990, the year before the So-
viet collapse wiped out much heavy industry.
Today’s carbon-intensive industries—
most prominently the coal, steel, and metal
sectors—are reluctant to do more, arguing for
voluntarily ratcheting up energy efficiency
without setting specific emissions targets.
The federal government is on board with
that approach. Speaking at a United Nations
forum in November 2016, Yaroslav Mandron,
a top climate official in Russia’s economic
development ministry in Moscow, suggested
that the federal government’s climate policy
should concentrate on efficiency until about
2030, after which it could revisit the idea of
enacting stricter emissions standards.
Russia’s emissions targets are certainly unambitious, says Alexey Kokorin, director of
the climate and energy program at the World
Wildlife Fund Russia, an environmental
group in Moscow. But he sees unmistakable
signs of progress: “It is good that Russian
officials and the political elite recognize the
threats coming from climate change and acknowledge the necessity of adaptation.” j
Angelina Davydova is a journalist in Saint
22 SEPTEMBER 2017 • VOL 357 ISSUE 6357 1221 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
By Angelina Davydova
Russia heightens defenses
against climate change
But carbon emission reductions are off the table
Illnesses and deaths linked to heat and wildfire
pollution in the Moscow region in 2010 are now seen
as a harbinger of the future toll of climate change.