Global Warming, a Scapegoat?: With Russia ablaze, easy blame detracts from real causes

Although Russia is notorious for its extreme climate, it lived up to its reputation in an entirely new way this summer. The end of July beckoned soaring temperatures above 100 degrees Farenheit, exacerbated by an extended drought. Sections of Russia were set ablaze as brushfires sprung up over huge expanses of the country’s southern half. Despite the efforts of over 150,000 firefighters, the fires destroyed not only human lives but also Russia’s landscape and agriculture. Even urban areas were forced to cope with gigantic smog blankets in the skies and risks of radioactive particles reaching the population. Given the widespread effects, many questioned the possible causes.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev publicly blamed the tragedy on climate change, urging other nations to better cater to environmental conservation efforts. Such claims led to a general belief that global warming “was responsible” for the fires, and other causes were quickly overlooked in lieu of a familiar scapegoat.

Char Miller, Director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College, thinks the “Russian political leadership was quick to blame climate change for this searing tragedy.” There may be no direct correlation. “Although the ignition sources were meteorological, it is a bit too easy to say that the massive plumes of smoke that obscured Russian skies were a direct result of global warming,” he said.

Irregularities in the weather are often initially blamed on climate change because it has become a household name. Despite its ubiquity, many do not understand that its repercussions are not necessarily extreme and that a temperature rise is a gradual and often fluctuating process. Although the suspect cannot be necessarily ruled out, a causal relationship cannot be presumed. Lurking variables, like fire management strategies, may factor in. While Russia’s fire management strategy and firefighting network lacks the press and attention that global warming has received, parallels may exist with the United States.

Jennifer Perry, Chair of Pomona’s Anthropology Department, discussed the problems with traditional methods. “In the U.S., and California specifically, fire management has been synonymous with fire suppression for about 100 years,” she said. “However, fire suppression runs counter to archaeological and paleo-environmental data. In this case, fire suppression is a 100-year anomaly that isn’t working because, in the end, it results in larger fires.”

Regardless of the cause, Russia must now pay a large sum not only to douse the fires but also to rebuild what was damaged. Grain production has suffered so much that export bans have been imposed to help the country stabilize. In addition, the deaths and injuries have infused the country with a widespread sense of angst. These consequences help explain the public’s nonchalance toward determining the fires’ actual causes. When fearing for safety, the masses quickly latched onto climate change as an easily acceptable explanation. Further research into the actual cause of the wildfires has often been disregarded.

But for outside analysts, Russia’s tragedy may provide hope for political reform. According to Miller, the “Russian Forest Service has had its budget slashed; in a massive reform effort, the nation-state in 2006 pushed responsibility for forest management down to the local level and/or to private corporations.” Perhaps the wildfires will draw more national attention to forestry issues. At the very least, Miller says, it could spur a “more careful evaluation of the interaction between climate change and human behavior. If so, that could be the silver lining in this dark moment.”

The global attention paid to Russia’s wildfires can only compel world citizens to be more environmentally conscious. While the absolute and confirmed cause of the fires remains unknown, climate irregularities may loom in the future. This ordeal serves as a reminder for better preparedness. Even if climate change accepts permanent blame, such a title may be proactive in pushing people around the world to properly acknowledge the risks and consequences associated with environmental deterioration.

Danielle Holstein is a freshman at Pomona College. She hopes to major in either PPE or English, and enjoys reading and long walks on the beach.

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