SAMOILOVSKY ISLAND, Russia (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin traveled beyond the Arctic Circle on Monday to look into evidence for climate change after a record heatwave ravaged central Russia this summer.
Putin, who has in the past displayed a light-hearted approach to global warming by joking Russians would have to buy fewer fur coats, flew to a scientific research station in the Samoilovsky island at the delta of Siberia’s Lena River.
“The climate is changing. This year we have come to understand this when we faced events that resulted in fires,” Putin told climate scientists working at the station, opened in 1998 to study the melting Siberian permafrost.
The two-month heatwave, Russia’s worst on record, killed 54 people in forest fires, destroyed a quarter of the grain crop and shaved at least $14 billion off the economy.
Putin, who has sought to burnish his action-man image flying firefighting planes and facing angry fire victims, was clearly stunned by the extent of the natural disaster, likening it to Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union.
Though experts say it is impossible to link individual weather events to climate change, the heatwave has shown signs of shifting perceptions of global warming risks among northern nations such as Russia, Canada and the Nordic countries.
Putin, dressed in a warm jacket, told the scientists on the barren tundra that he was still waiting for an answer whether global climate change was the result of human activity or “the Earth living its own life and breathing.”
He argued that the end of the Ice Age which forced woolly mammoths to seek refuge in Samoilovsky and other Arctic islands ten thousand years ago was not mankind’s fault and sought advice on how to handle climate change.
“Which islands should we be fleeing to?” he asked.
Scientists blame global warming on emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. Putin, keen for Russia to retain position as one of the leading exporters of oil and gas, has spoken dismissively of alternative energy sources.
Russia’s own greenhouse gases emissions are well within its Kyoto goal of keeping them below 1990 level by 2012, but are set to rise as the country bids to develop manufacturing.
Russia was the fourth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2009, according to energy firm BP, and is a key player in efforts to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, whose first phase ends in 2012.
Scientists say that melting Siberian permafrost which stretches up to 1.5 km into the ground will accelerate the global warming process further, as huge quantities of methane gas are released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Writing by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Ralph Boulton