It's hard not to be a little freaked out by Russia's incursion into Georgia and the new and slippery icy patch it set between the U.S. and our old Cold War adversary.
While I didn't live through under-the-desk air-raid drills, the elementary school in my hometown did proclaim itself a nuclear fallout shelter, and the thought that continent-spanning nations, and not just rogue zealots, are getting back into the game of international belligerence is off-putting, to say the least. (The irony of President Bush's missive against foreign policy "bullying and intimidation" is not lost on me, particularly since our fully-committed military no doubt played a huge strategic role in Russia's decision to use such overwhelming force in Georgia -- but the prospect of some other Superpower, one whose leaders are anointed rather than elected, engaging in bullying and intimidating its way to global hegemony seems even worse.)
But a new war, cold or hot, isn't the only concern we need to have, when it comes to Russia. Consider the climate.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Already, the prospect of a strong new worldwide agreement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions has dimmed by the failure of economic talks, the faltering economy and Bush's longstanding opposition to a United Nations-led effort.
Russia has never had a strong incentive to participate. Its carbon emissions, while below Soviet-era highs, have been rising as it exploits new sources of oil. Selling, and burning, that oil is not only the source of Russia's resurgent power, but also -- potentially -- its ticket to more wealth and power.
Global warming is the chief driver of the record melt in the Arctic last summer, and the general downward trend in ice coverage in the last 30 years. (This summer's melt isn't expected to reach the dramatic extent of last summer's, but it is expected to fall neatly into the longer-term trend.)
No nation has put as much effort into studying, and preparing to exploit, the Arctic as has Russia. Its best-known act was planting a titanium flag on the sea floor of the North Pole last year. That was a stunt, true. But its symbolism is backed by a real strategic advantage. One example: The U.S. has just two ice-breakers suitable for work in the Arctic, as the New York Times reported, and they were both old enough to have seen action before the last Cold War ended. Russia, on the other hand, has at least 14 such ships and is building more.
The London Telegraph summed it up neatly: Russia leads scramble for Arctic:
"As the polar powers have got out their maps in the last couple of years, four of them - Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the USA have made the unpleasant discovery that the fifth - Russia - is far ahead of the game. As Russian forces consolidate their grip on her messy southern frontier in the aftermath of the war with Georgia, her diplomats, oilmen and military have been pressing their advantage in the north, a border region which is on a far vaster scale but equally confused and disputed."
What incentive does Russia have to reduce global warming? Like any nation, it will deal with new natural disasters, melting and flooding, new diseases, and other ills. But it may well decide that it has much more to gain by a warmer globe.
And it's demonstrated in Georgia that it will exercise its will, despite the opinions of the Western world.
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