Illnesses and deaths linked to heat and wildfire pollution in the Moscow region in 2010 are now seen as a harbinger of the future toll of climate change.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/ Staff/Getty Images

Russia wants to protect itself from climate change—without reducing carbon emissions

When a squall tore through Moscow at the end of May, the toll was unusually high: The fierce gales killed 18 people and injured scores more, officials say, and inflicted about $3.5 billion in damages in Russia's capital region.

Now, there's another casualty. Earlier this month, Russia's government fired the head of its weather forecasting agency, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, or Roshydromet. Alexander Frolov, 65, had surpassed the mandatory retirement age for civil servants, but the real reason he was forced out, observers say, was Roshydromet's failure to anticipate the late-May storm's intensity and warn Muscovites accordingly. His ousting also sent a message to the environment ministry, Roshydromet's overseer. The state prosecutor's office, according to the newspaper Kommersant, demanded that the ministry take steps to increase the accuracy of forecasts in light of a changing climate.

The new charge to the environment ministry reflects a sea change in Russia's views about climate change and how the nation must respond. Politicians have acknowledged that extreme weather events have doubled over the past 25 years, to 590 in 2016, and that average temperatures are rising, particularly in the Arctic. Yet until recently, tackling climate change was a low priority for the federal government. One reason is complacence, because Russia's greenhouse gas emissions have already plummeted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another is political: Russia's economy depends heavily on pumping oil and gas out of the ground. Many influential voices here routinely debunked climate change, and some Russian newspapers in recent years chalked up climate variability to a mythical U.S. weapon aimed at Russia, or as a foreign plot aimed at Russia's energy exports.

That thinking has gone out the window. "We have already witnessed [climate change] effects this summer and we need to prepare for more damage to come," says Anton Kulbachevsky, the head of Moscow city's environmental committee. He says that climate-related economic damage in the Moscow region, home to 20 million people, is expected to reach $4.3 billion a year by 2025, a figure comparable to the national toll, on average, in recent years.

Unease spread nationwide this summer, after forest fires razed 4.6 million hectares of Siberian taiga and flooding ravaged the Far East. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus has made gains in southern Russia, and tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease are spreading in the north. Officials as well as scientists blame those disturbing patterns on climate change. "Climate change is a real threat for Russia, and the country and its regions urgently need to start adapting to it, building resilience," Larisa Korepanova, a senior official at the natural resources ministry, said at a climate forum organized by the city of Moscow and held there in August.

That's exactly what a draft adaptation plan for the Moscow region aims to do. Unveiled at the forum, the strategy takes stock of which sectors are most vulnerable to climate change, recommends adaptation measures, and estimates compliance costs. The draft plan lauds the high resilience it sees in the city's power grids, housing complexes, and transportation networks. But it raises the specter of more frequent and pronounced heat waves that would sicken or kill rising numbers of Muscovites and decimate greenery, as well as worsening air quality that would erode health.

In 2010, Moscow experienced a preview of what it may have to adapt to on a regular basis. Over 44 days that summer, sweltering temperatures, as well as particulates from forest fires and smog, resulted in nearly 11,000 deaths in the Moscow region, mainly among people over 65 years old, says Boris Revich, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences's environmental health laboratory in Moscow. To better cope with heat waves, the adaptation plan calls for modernizing hospitals, establishing free water supplies, and ensuring that senior centers and kindergartens have air conditioning.

Although Russia is bracing for climate change, it has shown little desire to rein in carbon emissions. It intends to ratify the Paris climate accord in 2019 or 2020, the president's climate adviser recently confirmed. But the country can afford to do little and still meet its emissions pledges for 2020 to 2030, which range from 25% to 30% below 1990 levels. Russia is already running 30% below levels in 1990, the year before the Soviet collapse wiped out much heavy industry.

Today's carbon-intensive industries—most prominently the coal, steel, and metal sectors—are reluctant to do more, arguing for voluntarily ratcheting up energy efficiency without setting specific emissions targets. The federal government is on board with that approach. Speaking at a United Nations forum in November 2016, Yaroslav Mandron, a top climate official in Russia's economic development ministry in Moscow, suggested that the federal government's climate policy should concentrate on efficiency until about 2030, after which it could revisit the idea of enacting stricter emissions standards.

Russia's emissions targets are certainly unambitious, says Alexey Kokorin, director of the climate and energy program at the World Wildlife Fund Russia, an environmental group in Moscow. But he sees unmistakable signs of progress: "It is good that Russian officials and the political elite recognize the threats coming from climate change and acknowledge the necessity of adaptation."

Angelina Davydova is a journalist in Saint Petersburg, Russia.