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Global warming worries millions of people and may threaten the future of the world, but its effects may not all be dire
It could be just the issue Russia needs to mend frayed relations with Europe at next month’s G8 summit. The Kremlin’s recent embrace of environmental causes is driven more by foreign policy interests than by fear of thawing permafrost inundating Siberia. But that may not matter when the G8 leaders meet in Scotland, with climate change topping their agenda. President Vladimir Putin’s support of the Kyoto Protocol last fall salvaged the treaty and has become one of his few areas of accord with European leaders in the months since. That could prove crucial to shoring up Russia’s flimsy case for taking over the G8 chairmanship after this summit. Russia’s role in the G8 remains hazy eight years after it officially joined the club of rich nations, and its membership remains insecure. Just a few months ago U.S. politicians were urging Russia’s expulsion from the G8 over Putin’s political direction, and other European institutions have long been heaping criticism on Putin’s administration, urging isolation of Russia instead of engagement. Russia’s best chance of shedding this outcast status within the G8 is to use climate change to show its solidarity with the six other members who consider global warming one of the group’s major priorities – even if that risks angering the United States, the only member opposed to the Kyoto Protocol. Russia’s ratification of Kyoto not only rescued the protocol from disintegration, but also boosted British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s campaign to make the fight against global warming a key part of his legacy. The Putin-Blair meetings last week suggested that Britain is ready to overlook its frustrations with Russia in exchange for vigorous backing on the issue at the G8. Such endorsement by Putin would further aggravate his U.S. critics, but nothing he does at this point is likely to appease them anyway. Putin is apparently counting on his “special relationship” with U.S. President George Bush to take the sting out of Russia’s siding with Europe over climate change at the G8. This relationship, combined with Washington’s apparent indifference to Moscow’s endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol last year, make the risk of a major US-Russian rift over the climate question minimal. Despite Blair’s efforts, Bush’s anti-Kyoto stance and disproportionate power within the G8 will keep the group from taking any bold steps to slow global warming at this summit. The final summit communiqué may not even admit that global warming is a problem, much less that it’s man-made, if U.S. officials have their say. That makes the Kremlin’s current pro-environment stance a safe strategy – especially since Russia’s commitment to halting climate change remains questionable. An increasing number of studies suggest that Russia, despite its reputation as a frigid land, is a leading victim of global warming. Its enormous territory is susceptible to drought in its agriculture-dependent south, flooding of transport routes once protected by permafrost, and climatic disruption around its precious oil fields. Yet Russian scientists disagree on the extent of the threat, and on whether a shift in industrial policy will make any difference. So Russian policymakers are resisting efforts to abandon coalmines and invest in hydrothermal energy, hoping instead that Russia’s vast forests will counteract the worst industrial pollution and that no one will actually enforce the rules outlined in Kyoto. In any case, Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions had already fallen so sharply after the collapse of Soviet industry that signing Kyoto required little of the sacrifice that other signatories must bear. Blair and other European leaders appear ready to overlook Russia’s ambiguous attitude toward the Kyoto Protocol as long as it serves their national interests. They needed Russia’s ratification to make the treaty viable, and they need Putin’s support at the G8 to keep the United States from squeezing the topic off the agenda altogether. Cynical as this is, it may be just what’s needed to get Russian-European relations back on track after a protracted period of hostility, fueled by the conviction of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s resistance to revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and Putin’s restrictions on democracy. Putin and European leaders need such a boost in relations to justify Russia’s chairmanship of the G8 to skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic
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