The Arctic Circle is experiencing an unprecedented heat wave. The Siberian village of Verkhoyansk recorded a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit on June 20th, potentially the highest ever reported in the region, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
Residents of Verkhoyansk and other Siberian towns have had to rapidly change their daily lives. The higher temperatures have brought many new challenges including wildfires, flooded pastures, mosquito swarms and eroding riverbanks that hinder fishermen. A New York Times report provides details on this new reality.
Last year’s wildfires burned an area the size of Kentucky, and this year even more of the territory is expected to burn. As the permafrost underground thaws, buildings collapse. The phenomenon even caused a major oil spill in late May. Villagers are noting that the fish are swimming deeper to the cooler water and are harder to catch, and the entire ecosystem is changing as new flora and fauna appear. Just three years ago, a snowmobile could traverse the area around Srednekolymsk—closer to Alaska—in June. Now that would be impossible.
A farmer in the area, Afanasiy Kudrin, tells the Times, “Everything is changing, people are trying to figure out how to adapt. We need the cold to come back, but it just gets warmer and warmer.” Aleksandr Fedrov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute, says that, “People don’t comprehend the scale of this change, and our government is not even thinking about it.”
Since that interview, President Vladimir Putin addressed concerned and announced a new plan to tackle the effects of climate change in Russia. He recognized that Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world, but denied the impact of increased human activity. The Guardian explains his two-year plan hopes to mitigate damage but also capitalize on the advantages of climate change.
These advantages, according to Putin, include trade routes and arable land that have become accessible because of higher temperatures. He also listed preventative measures that can be taken, such as building dams or switching to drought-resistant crops. However, no significant measures will be put in place until late 2022.
The plan makes it seem as though Putin is prioritizing the mitigation of climate change, but he is only trying to “trying to capitalize on greater access to Arctic shipping routes and natural resources—including oil, gas and minerals—as Russia’s frozen north heats up,” as said by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Putin appears to be downplaying the current disasters caused by climate change, as we see in Siberia. Reuters also claims that, “climate change experts said the new framework was too general and did not require authorities to take real steps in the near term—even as the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent.”
During the press conference in which he announced the new policy, Putin said, “Some of our cities were built north of the Arctic Circle, on the permafrost. If it begins to thaw, you can imagine what consequences it would have. It’s very serious.” He does not recognize that the permafrost is already thawing, and the obvious consequences we see already. The oil spill mentioned earlier, in Norilsk, prompted Putin to lash out at the company involved and the regional governor. The Washington Post claims he slammed their slow response but failed to acknowledge the ultimate cause of the disaster: the melting permafrost.
The everyday citizens of Siberia will not be reaping the economic benefits of increased access to trade routes and natural resources that excite Putin. They will continue to struggle without support from the government. The policy suggestions he released cannot be implemented by communities independently. Farmers may, in the long run, benefit from changing their crops. But without financial and strategic aid, they are unable to do so on their own. Siberian communities are being lost as people leave their ancestral homes. Their way of life is no longer sustainable, and their government has forgotten them.
The mental image of Siberia is a frozen and desolate wasteland. While it is massive and communities are spread out, nearly 34 million people live there. Putin’s authoritative nature means that he is not held accountable by his citizens. He is currently working to enact constitutional changes to keep him in power until 2036. On July 1st, his hold on power is expected to be cemented, according to the Post. His weak climate plan is an attempt to make this more attractive to the rest of the world, not to aid his constituents. Without international pressure to enact a long-term and meaningful plan, Russians will continue to suffer.