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Why Russia's thawing permafrost is a global problem


While climate policy may be a way to challenge Russia in the future, climate change is threatening that country now. That's especially true of its permafrost, that soil that remains frozen year-round. Permafrost is warming much faster than scientists had once thought. That's dangerous for Russia because two-thirds of the country rests on permafrost. When it melts, the ground is less solid, and that could be disastrous for cities and critical infrastructure like buildings and oil pipelines.

Joshua Yaffa recently wrote about all this for The New Yorker magazine. He's their Moscow correspondent and traveled to Siberia to track the changes to Russia's permafrost. When we spoke, he explained why this melting is concerning for Russia and the world.

JOSHUA YAFFA: It's worrying for two reasons. The first is, let's say, local. As the ground essentially thaws, in some cases, large ice wedges melt, turning to water, creating large underground puddles. Of course, what's ever built on top of that earth begins to buckle and sway and even collapse, and we've seen that in Russian cities. We saw that in the summer of 2020 with the collapse of a large diesel tank in the city of Norilsk that led to an environmental catastrophe that Greenpeace compared to the spill of Exxon Valdez. So we have these issues that affect local infrastructure, local ecosystems.

There's a second issue, which I think is more worrying for all of us, really, and that has to do with the greenhouse gases that are released from permafrost as it thaws. Permafrost is, essentially, a really wonderful and efficient natural cold storage facility. It's swallowed up all manner of organic material, from tree stumps to woolly mammoth haunches, over the millennia and kept it locked in a kind of long-term cryogenic slumber. But as the permafrost thaws, that material defrosts. Microbes in the soil begin to awaken, and a process of decomposition begins. And that process releases both carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. So what we're seeing happen is massive amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which is not a local problem, of course, but really a global problem.

MARTIN: So let's talk about Russia's President Vladimir Putin. He's not unlike a lot of world leaders in the sense that he used to dismiss climate change. He said that he once said that climate change simply means that Russians will spend less on fur coats. Has he changed his tune? And how does this factor into his vision for the country now?

YAFFA: You very much have seen Putin and other top Russian officials speak with real clarity and alarm about the risk from climate change, both for Russia's own national interest as well as globally. Last year, Russia's environmental minister proposed a nationwide system to monitor changes in the permafrost due to climate change, noting that permafrost thaw could cause more than $60 billion worth of infrastructure damage. That certainly, I think, made a lot of Russian officials, including Putin himself, sit up straight.

Russia, while it has pledged to limit its emissions, it's essentially doing that through a kind of accounting trick and saying that it will limit its emissions to a level dating back to the early '90s, when, as part of the legacy of a project of Soviet heavy industry, it was producing and polluting quite a lot. So it's essentially picked the most convenient baseline to say it will now produce less than. In fact, that baseline is so large it would allow Russia to emit even more than it does today. So on the level of rhetoric, you've seen a shift, but I'm not sure you've really seen much of a shift on action.

MARTIN: Around the world, we've seen young people really get energized about this. You know, they're deeply anxious about their future and rightly so. And you've seen kind of a youth movement that I think has probably done as much to get, you know, adults energized as anything else because, you know, people tend to pay attention when their kids get mad, right? So is there any similar phenomenon in Russia? I guess what I'm wondering is, is there any sense that Russians understand this threat to themselves and to the world as a matter of general public concern?

YAFFA: I do certainly think that the Russian public understands the basic facts and science of climate change as well as sort of any other polity around the world. That said, for reasons outside the bounds of this conversation, it's a whole other conversation about the nature of Russian politics and society circa 2022. The process or even the prospect of citizens banding together to try and influence or impact change on a governmental level - well, that's a story I think you and your colleagues have covered extensively over the past year of what that story has meant and looked like in Russia in terms of the unprecedented crackdown, really, and a wave of repression we haven't seen since the - really the days of the Soviet Union. And all of that combined creates an environment in which the notion of grassroots activism of any kind looks all the more unrealistic and perilous, really, whether it's on climate or any other issue. So we're not really seeing the kinds of public manifestations of collective action and collective calls for change that you might see in other parts of Europe and the United States.

MARTIN: That's Joshua Yaffa. He's Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker. He's author of the book "Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, And Compromise In Putin's Russia." He's with us from Moscow. Joshua Yaffa, thank you so much for your reporting.

YAFFA: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELIOS' "IT WAS WARMER THEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.