Foreign Policy Blogs

The Fire Next Time

That, of course, is the title of James Baldwin’s famous two-essay collection.  Baldwin took it from the old spiritual, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”

Well, I don’t like to get all biblical, but I bet a lot of folks in Russia and Ukraine are feeling like it’s the end of days these days.

Russian grain harvests are reeling this summer from one-two punches of drought and wildfires. Flames destroyed a crop last week near Voronezh, about 300 miles south of Moscow.  (Mikhail Metzel/The Kansas City Star)
Russian grain harvests are reeling this summer from one-two punches of drought and wildfires. Flames destroyed a crop last week near Voronezh, about 300 miles south of Moscow. (Mikhail Metzel/The Kansas City Star)

One-fifth of the Russian wheat crop has failed because of heat, drought and fire, as this from the Kansas City Star reports.  Reuters reports here that “Scorching heat and acrid smoke have nearly doubled death rates in Moscow…”


Reuters further reports in this article that the massive brown clouds from the fires in Russia and Ukraine may exacerbate the rapid thawing of Arctic snow and ice.  Black carbon may already be responsible for as much as half of the Arctic melt.

Can it get worse?  How about radioactivity?  The NY Times reports in this piece that “…there is growing alarm here that fires in regions coated with fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 24 years ago could now be emitting plumes of radioactive smoke.”  There are reports from environmental groups about this but also from the government.  Russia’s emergency minister has warned that the fires could release radioactive particles.

Now I am also reticent to jump on the bad news bandwagon, as we are cautioned here, quite rightly, not to do.  Any analysis I offer is backed by a ton of science.  See Unmistakable Signs of a Warming World, for instance, or Temperature 101.  But scientists are pointing out that the Russian heat wave, prevalent elsewhere from Europe to the Middle East this summer, as well as the floods in Pakistan and the mud slides in China are all being driven, in part at least, by climate change.  In this Reuters article, one scientist says:  “We will always have climate extremes. But it looks like climate change is exacerbating the intensity of the extremes.”  Andy Revkin reports here on other analyses from climate researchers that link these catastrophes to climate change.

Here’s a graphic from the “NY Times” from a couple of years ago that illustrates how natural disasters have steadily increased.

In my climate change classes, I make a point of looking at “salient” events that impact the public’s consciousness:  Katrina and Ike, the Iraq War, and the European heat wave in 2003 are consistently among the choices for what has altered people’s views on energy and climate.  I would have to think that the devastating events in Russia and Ukraine would have to be changing how their governments think.

In fact, Will Russia’s Heat Wave End Its Global-Warming Doubts? is the question from Time.  No less a worthy than Russia’s President, Dmitri Medvedev, is quoted:  “What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now 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’s presence as a force in international climate negotiations couldn’t be more important.  They’ve been dragging their feet so far.  Maybe these apocalyptic fires and the heat wave that has engendered them are really going to help drive some progress.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change