The roof is on fire: Why do we hear about some forest fires more than others?

Tatiana Shauro, Communications Officer at Climate Action Network - Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia delves into the Russian fires and why this huge story is being put out faster than the blazes.
Tatiana Shauro, Communications Officer at Climate Action Network - Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia delves into the Russian fires and why this huge story is being put out faster than the blazes.

God gave me one talent – communication. And this is what I have been doing professionally for many years.

Communicating climate change in post-Soviet space, where almost all countries are run by dictators is challenging, to say the least. One of the countries I work with is Russia – big oil, big coal, big gas, but most importantly – gigantic forest fires breaking records every year. 16,5 million hectares of Russian forests burned in 2020. Biggest in 20 years. So why don’t we hear much about it?

Let me break it down for you.

Russia is known for vodka, dash cams, bears and of course our “Supreme Leader” Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Out of fear of losing power, Putin created a police-state where freedom of thought and self expression is dangerous and poses a threat to you, your family, and your friends. Every year we see repression getting worse. There’s no hiding, and being lawful could still land you in prison, so long as people in power benefit.

In 2012, Russians came closest to smelling freedom. Tens of thousands of people were protesting all over Russia. The result? 15 people were put in prison for periods between 2 to 4,5 years. 

But the main result for our story was Putin’s belief that he needed to put an end to both civil society and free media. The thing is, killing and putting everyone in prison is not an option. It’s impossible to put everyone in jail and it’s like a cop-out. Especially for Putin, who likes playing political chess. 

Manifestation of the Russian national sport – mind bending political games. 

Just after the revolution attempt, in 2012, a “Foreign Agent Law” was introduced. Long story short: if you are an NGO and you get funding from abroad (which of course you do, because there’s almost no support for CSOs within the Russian borders) you have to register as a “Foreign Agent” which makes your life unbearable. Basically, you would have to close your organisation or drown in bureaucracy. But even if you don’t get funds from abroad – there’s a chance you will be punished for not registering as a Foreignt Agent. 

For example when Environmental Center “Dront” was sued for getting the money from Russian Orthodox Church. And like this was not even enough – this Foreign Agent law practice was highly welcomed by other dictators and now the same law is functioning in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Hungary. These countries just copy-pasted the Russian law without a single doubt. 

Photo credit: Greenpeace Russia

So how is this connected to fires, you may ask?

Well, in spring 2020 only 1% of fires were included in the official statistics.

If there’s no civil society, it’s easy to hide. If it’s easy to hide, there are more fires; more underreported fires, in the biggest country in the world. This is a massive problem. 

Add climate change on top of that and you have a recipe for disaster. 

The Arctic fires during this 2020 summer set a record – they led to the release of 244 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yakutia suffered the most: 395 million tons of CO2 were emitted from its entire territory.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still heroes out there. One of them is Grigory Kuksin, Greenpeace Russia Wildfire Unit Head and the main spokesperson on anything that includes fires in Russia. In the new #WorldWeWant campaign video he shares a heartbreaking truth while shocking footage of destructive fire footage is shown with heroic volunteers walking in slow motion. 

He answered a few questions exclusively for Climate Tracker on why, in his opinion, Russian fires are being underreported in the international media.

For many in the world, Russia is a black box. No one knows what’s happening there. We just know that there is Siberia and smoke often comes from there. It was a unique situation when in 2019 the world suddenly started talking about Russian fires. The situation was bad, but not that special. That year the attitude towards Russian fires has changed, especially in connection with climate change. Smoke from fires reached the cities, it escalated the protests and this was noticed worldwide.

He pointed out that it’s a Soviet tradition to reduce statistics about what’s happening by ten times and that as result, you never really know what is happening or what is needed. He also added that it’s very rate for a governor to admit how much territory is actually burning.

The state is afraid to look weak. They do not dare to admit their helplessness and lack of strength, even when you can blame anything on climate change. That’s why we see such a shortage of equipment and people to extinguish fires. Authorities say that the situation is getting better, but we see that it’s just getting worse. This year fires might burn through the winter.” Grigory shared.

There are regions whose significance is not questioned by the international community, based on stereotypes. If we ask what Brazil’s Amazon forests are, everyone would say that they are the lungs of our planet. If we ask about Indonesia – it’s 15% of all living organisms on planet Earth. 

As for Russia, the value of boreal forests is underpopular. Who in the world knows what the Vasyugan swamps are? And this is the world’s most unique and biggest carbon sink.

All 3 countries with big boreal forests – Canada, USA and Russia – have problems with state attitude towards fires. Canadian authorities say that this is a natural process and there’s no need to count these emissions. Russia joins in with a great pleasure to this position, because in terms of climate agreements we will lose all our privileges as soon as we count how much forest burns each year and admit that this is a human factor.

So next time you see a post, tweet, article or a video about Russian fires – don’t hesitate to share it as wide as you can. Because we don’t have koalas to attract attention to our fires. We have authorities who would do anything to keep the scale of catastrophe a secret.

Tatiana Shauro
Regional Officer of Climate Action Network in EECCA region (Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia). Has a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Engineering and a Master's degree in Ecology and Biodiversity. Has been working in the field of climate and energy for more than 7 years, in the environmental movement for more than 15 years. She has been actively participating in the UN climate negotiations since 2013. Conducts communications and campaigning trainings for representatives of NGOs, activists and journalists. Working on increasing the number of quality climate news in the region and regional news in the international media. Helps CAN network members to increase the awareness of decision makers about the need to conduct a just transition to 100% renewable energy.