The Lessons to be Learned From Russia's Fires

08/18/2010 06:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Russia is burning. The record-breaking temperatures that are gripping Russia have fueled hundreds of fires and caused a mounting number of deaths. The most intense heat wave in the country's 130 years of record keeping has destroyed thousands of homes, decimated over 30 percent of Russia's wheat crop, ravaged the environment and infrastructure of many cities, and led to states of emergency in 35 regions.

The air is so choked with soot that one of the country's chief medical authorities estimates that walking around Moscow for a few hours was the equivalent of smoking a pack or two of cigarettes, causing Moscow's daily death rate to double. Officials from Russia's Federal Forest Protection Service express concern about the potential release of radioactive smoke in regions that were coated by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And as thick smoke sends soot drifting to the Arctic, black carbon settles on already dwindling sea ice, which accelerates melting and intensifies global warming.

The raging fires are being fueled by Russia's woefully inadequate Forestry Code, which was drastically rewritten in 2006. The change was fiercely opposed by Pacific Environment's partners, who said it would expose Russia's pristine forests to unchecked logging and sharply raise the chance of wildfires.

The new Code removed responsibility for forest supervision from federal agencies and put it in the hands of local authorities and logging companies who were eager to gain access to the county's great forest resources throughout the country's taiga, or northern forests.

As a result, there is no longer a federal agency that regulates and responds to forest management and forest fires. And, out of the 83,000 people once employed by the Federal Forest Protection Agency, only 680 forest inspectors remained at Rosprirodnadzor (Russia's environmental protection agency) -- the equivalent of about eight people per administrative division of Russia.

Just a few months ago President Medvedev told an audience in Siberia that he was opposed to reducing Russia's carbon emissions to address climate change. But the fires have changed that. Last week, Medvedev made a u-turn in his position and declared: "What is happening now in our Central regions is evidence of this global climate change...This means we have to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past." He said that the dire situation "needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate."

Russia can do much more to prevent the fires that are now raging through the taiga. Russia can ban agricultural burning, which often leads to forest fires. Russia can reform its Forest Code to prioritize forest conservation and can increase enforcement of its environmental laws. Russia can work with the many grassroots environmental groups throughout Russia that are fighting to protect forests.

Russia's aggressive actions to prevent forest fires would bring multiple benefits. Russia would protect the health of Russia's citizens, now choking from the smoke. Russia would reduce black carbon emissions that are causing the Arctic to melt faster. And Russia would protect its vast forests, which themselves are an important carbon sink.

Russia's fires are intensified by climate change. The burning of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. As the level of greenhouse gases increases, the amount of heat that the atmosphere traps increases, and as a result, the average temperature of the Earth increases. Russia is the world's largest oil producer in the world and the third biggest energy consumer. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long predicted that rising global temperatures would produce more frequent and intense heat waves. Scientists say this increases in the length of fire seasons, the number of fires, the time needed to put out fires, and the size of the burned area.

This year Medvedev signed a climate change doctrine that sets out steps for Russia to reduce its power usage and increase energy efficiency by 40 percent in the next decade. So far his words have not translated into action, but this summer's devastating heat and raging fires are too great to ignore.

Now, Medvedev acknowledges that the infernos in Russia's countryside are the result of global warming. The inescapable truth is that burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Russia's conflagration is a graphic demonstration of the consequences of the dependency on fossil fuels and poor forest management. It should serve as a global impetus to abandon this extraordinarily destructive dependency in favor of clean renewable energy.