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the Complete Review
the complete review - political science


Thane Gustafson

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To purchase Klimat

Title: Klimat
Author: Thane Gustafson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 224 pages
Availability: Klimat - US
Klimat - UK
Klimat - Canada
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Russia in the Age of Climate Change

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a solid and accessible survey

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Asian Rev. of Books . 9/11/2021 Peter Gordon
London Rev. of Books . 6/10/2022 Tony Wood
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/6/2022 Sophie Pinkham
TLS . 4/2/2022 Bathsheba Demuth

  From the Reviews:
  • "Klimat skips the argument about what should be done about climate change when, but rather focuses on what the effects will be when it inevitably hits harder than it already has, what the resulting policy options will be and what might impede them -- in Russia. It is a methodology that could be usefully applied to other, perhaps more complicated, economies and countries." - Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books

  • "Thane Gustafson’s Klimat was published twelve months ago, but although much has changed since the invasion of Ukraine, the effects of the war so far on Russia’s main exports -- short-term gain, long-term disadvantage -- align with his arguments about the consequences of climate change for Russia. (...) As Gustafson sees it, Russian state policy is clearly putting the question of human survival second to oil and gas exports. But much of the human damage wrought by climate change will be indirect, in the form of ripple effects from political and technological shifts occurring elsewhere. (...) There are historical ironies lurking in Gustafson’s predictions." - Tony Wood, London Review of Books

  • "(W)ith its focus on the future of Russia’s energy, grain, and metals markets, all of which have been reconfigured by the war and the new sanctions, Klimat could hardly be more timely. (…) Gustafson counters, with a dry but persuasive marshaling of facts, that in the redistribution of wealth and power that will result from climate change, Russia is doomed. After reading Klimat, Russia’s attack on Ukraine begins to look like the convulsion of a dying state. (…) Klimat’s time horizon of 2050 is short, but Putin’s is even shorter: he is now almost seventy years old. After him will come the deluge, the wildfires, the droughts, the collapse." - Sophie Pinkham, The New York Review of Books

  • "Klimat is a lucid guide to the state of Russian energy production in the present, offering an invaluable tour through the country’s economy, sector by sector, as it relates to climate change, while providing a clear-eyed prognosis for the thirty years to come, from the likely fates of metal mining and nuclear power to that of a thawing Arctic. Gustafson avoids many of the tics that afflict Western commentary on Russia (.....) Klimat nonetheless remains an excellent primer: a realistic, and thus often quite bleak, assessment, which is both nuanced and eminently readable." - Bathsheba Demuth, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Klimat is a country-specific examination of the likely effects of climate change over the relatively near term -- the next several decades, as: "the main horizon of this book is 2050". As Gustafson notes: "Russia is near the top of all countries that stand to be affected by climate change". Its vast size covers many areas that will be dramatically affected -- though the biggest physical changes, such as rising ocean levels, a melting permafrost, and forest fires will mostly not directly affect Russia's largest population centers. With is dependence on fossil fuels, especially for export-earnings, the economic impact will clearly be great, however.
       Gustafson dedicates separate chapters to the main areas which will be impacted by climate change. As he notes, direct effects will not be as noticeable as in much of the rest of the wrold -- one reason climate change is also not as politically significant a concern among the general population as elsewhere, with Russians more concerned about general environmental issues -- notably pollution -- rather than the bigger issue of climate change, the exception being in the areas of the country where the effects are most obviously already felt, the two-thirds of the country founded on permafrost. With a relatively small population, widely dispersed, this huge area is, however, not particularly politically influential. (While the population in this huge area is small, it is not negligible: among the most striking statistics Gustafson trots out is that in Russia: "north of the Arctic Circle there are forty-six cities and towns with over 5000 residents (in contrast, in Canada there are none)" -- significant, as the melting permafrost does huge damage to the local infrastructure, from houses to roads and would require large-scale investment to stay on top of.)
       As Gustafson points out, climate change is of most concern in those areas where Russia is dependent on export markets: natural resources, the sale of which might be impacted by how countries elsewhere -- notably in the European Union -- react to the perceived threat of climate change. The transition away from fossil fuels is the most obvious and by far the biggest example thereof. Resource-rich, Russia faces an issue less with supply than demand: Gustafson sees Russia having a relative advantage to most producers in terms of the extraction of natural resources, but the export market -- especially for oil, which in 2019 accounted for a staggering 44 percent of all Russian exports -- which it is so dependent on seems likely to diminish in the not too distant future.
       Fossil fuel extraction is very capital-intensive -- and will only become more so, and Russia lags both in technological innovation (relying to a great deal on foreign expertise and equipment) and (access to) adequate capital markets, which makes reliance on these extraction-industries increasingly costly. Reliance on the state continues to increase:

More than half of Russian oil production benefited from some sort of tax preferences in 2018, compared to only 28 percent in 2014.
       With natural gas the question is also not one of supply but: "how much of this prospective capacity will actually be used". Gustafson notes that, unlike oil, most gas is domestically used -- seventy percent -- but sees little room for growth of domestic demand -- making the big question how much international demand there will be, and how well Russia will be positioned to supply it. The international shift to renewable energy should boost gas demand in the transitional phase, and there is certainly an opportunity here for Russia.
       As far as coal goes, Gustafson sees continuing demand in the near term -- outside of Europe, which is rapidly shifting away from coal use (and was, thanks to its proximity, Russia's easiest and obvious market). While demand is likely to increase in the short term elsewhere -- specifically Asia --, and Russia might be well-positioned to take advantage, the longer-term prospects for coal are, of course abysmal.
       Gustafson also addresses nuclear power -- a rare Russia technological success story, both domestically and abroad, and an area where Russia could potentially continue to have success. Here the issues are how Russia will be affected by especially Chinese competition; even more so than oil exploration, nuclear power is capital intensive, and China (and Western competitors) are much better positioned to have access to the necessary financing.
       In recent decades, agriculture has also been a major success story in Russia. Here, the effects of climate change will have different consequences, as the zones where agriculture thrives shifts -- Russia's big problem being that the best soil is already being used for agriculture, and global warming will not open up new capabilities: it's the permafrost that will thaw, and that is not agricultural land: as Gustafson bluntly puts it: "there is no potential for further expansion of agricultural land in the country". Meanwhile, currently more temperate zones will warm up and begin to be lost to agriculture. Russia should remain comfortably able to meet domestic food needs for the foreseeable future, but the possibilities for expanding export markets do not look good.
       The contrasting domestic positions on climate change in Russia -- varying, understandably, from industry to industry, many of which carry outsize political weight (as is familiar from, for example, also the coal industry in the United States) -- make for an unclear picture as to how Russian policy will try to adapt. As noted, there is still little pressure from the general population -- except in permafrost areas, it does not seem a pressing issue to the Russian citizens -- and a still completely Putin-dominated leadership seems only to have limited interest in pro-actively addressing the issue. So also, while there are some impressive efforts (and great potential) in this area, renewables continue to struggle to gain a toehold in Russia.
       Gustafson notes that Russian leader Putin uses different language when addressing an international audience than when addressing a domestic one. As to:
     Where do Putin's ideas on climate change come from ? Not, apparently, from climate scientists themselves.
       Political considerations dominate for the man, regime, and system that seeks above all to remain entrenched -- but, as Gustafson shows, climate change is quickly narrowing the range of possibilities and opportunities, and what is paying off now, and possibly in the short term, -- notably, supporting (and exporting) fossil fuel for all it's worth -- looks to be dead weight in the long term. Russia can lumber on as it long has; indeed, in many respects, notably its effects on population and population centers (beyond the infrastructure in the permafrost areas), Russia is relatively well-positioned to weather much of the expected fall-out of climate change relatively well -- but it does not appear to be using what advantages it has in preparing well for the future, notably in positioning the economy for the more radically climate-changing world, particularly in allocating capital (huge amounts of which will be needed, regardless of which paths are taken), short-term considerations taking precedence over sensible long-term planning.
       Klimat is a solid overview and consideration of the issues. Clearly deeply knowledgeable, Gustafson is cautious in passing judgment, anticipating and considering what appears to be the full range of possibilities (at least at this general level which he is considering the subject at). Klimat is an accessible work, offering a comprehensive survey without overwhelming the reader. With numerous brief biographies of influential figures in Russian politics and industry, it also provides some interesting insight into Russian politics and the national economy going beyond just the questions raised by climate change.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 January 2022

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Klimat: Reviews: Thane Gustafson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Thane Gustafson teaches at Georgetown University.

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© 2022 the complete review

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