“The Russian Position on Climate Change Matters” – 5in10 with Benjamin Beuerle

Benjamin Beuerle. Picture: Evgeny Markov/ GHI Moscow

Benjamin Beuerle is currently a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Moscow. He holds a PhD from Humboldt University (Berlin) where he graduated in 2014 with a study on “Russia’s West. Orientation towards the West and Reform Legislation in the Late Tsarist Empire, 1905-1917”. In March 2017, he joined the German Historical Institute Moscow where he is now the academic coordinator of the new research area “Russia’s North Pacific”. The research area will organize a first workshop entitled “Russia’s North Pacific between Imperialism and Globalization. Institutions and Spaces” on March 29-30 at the German Historical Institute in Moscow. Have a look at the programme here.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

In my current research I am dealing with approaches to climate change and with various motivations and political endeavours for reducing emissions in Russia from late Soviet times until today.

I start from the idea that the Russian position(s) on climate change matter(s). Russia is not only the biggest country in the world, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the biggest industrial powers (and polluters). It also holds enormous fossil energy resources and is still dependent on the exportation of oil and gas to a considerable degree. However, if all or most of Russia’s fossil resources will be extracted and burnt in the coming decades, the goal agreed on by the international community at the Paris conference in 2015 – to limit global warming to 2 C° compared with pre-industrial times –will be all but impossible to reach.

Against this background, I think it makes sense to have a closer look on approaches to climate change in Russia, how they have changed and evolved during the last decades and which motivation there was, is or might be in Russian politics and society to reduce anthropogenic emissions.

I am interested in debates and decisions on the federal (Soviet/ Russian) level as well as in the Russian Far East which I take as a specific regional example.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

After my PhD in Russian History (on reform debates and legislation in late-Tsarist Russia), I started an environmental studies programme at Hagen’s distance university. I have been interested in environmental topics for years and had the motivation to get a more profound understanding of these topics. In the framework of this studies programme, I took part in a seminar on international climate change negotiations. What became clear to me during this seminar was that for many external observers it is difficult to make sense of the Russian position in these negotiations, which often seems (and arguably is) contradictory. This is how I came to the idea that it might be intriguing to have a closer look on internal Russian positions and approaches to climate change. While I am interested in present stances, as an historian I am convinced that in order to understand them I have to deal with their development from Soviet times until today.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

My current research is based on three kinds of sources: Newspaper and journal articles dating from the 1980s until today; archival sources as far as they are available to me; and interviews with scientists, environmental activists and politicians. While I am used to analyse press and archival materials from my previous work and education, to interview people is a still very new and exciting experience to me.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

In March 2017 I took part in a workshop in London on “Soviet and Post-Soviet Imaginings of Climate” which entailed a whole number of fascinating papers. This was a very good start for entering this field and has given me a much clearer perception of what is already going on in terms of research and what makes sense to investigate further.

Seven months later I participated in a three-day conference in Cherepovets (some 500 km to the north of Moscow) with the title “Environmental History of Russia”. I was the only foreigner, and it was really inspiring to experience that “Environmental History” is a new field in the making in Russia, with all kind of discussions about ideas to establish a proper journal and an association, and with, again, a whole number of very interesting papers by very open-minded people.

In terms of inspiring literature, I could name e.g. Andy Bruno’s “The Nature of Soviet Power”, but that is very much pars pro toto, and there are many other texts which I could cite here as well.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Oh yes, I am sure it does. To begin with, as a scientist dealing with aspects of Russian history, politics and society, you can draft a research project at home with the knowledge you have, but once you start research in Russian archives and libraries as well as conversations with various people in Russia, the conception of the project will almost inevitably change in one way or the other, as you discover that either certain hypotheses are not tenable or that the material you find answers a question which is not identical with the one you started with – but which might after all be even more interesting to answer.

Apart from this rather empiric aspect, there is as well one which is more properly conceptual: As a student I took part in a Franco-German studies programme in History, which entailed a minimum of three semesters of studies at a French university. Some formal aspects of these studies have been formative for me until today – for example to structure new (research) projects and more generally to structure new thoughts usually in three parts. That might seem funny and sometimes inappropriate, but it can be very helpful as well – and it certainly has an influence on how you conceptualize things.

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Citation: Benjamin Beuerle, “The Russian Position on Climate Change Matters” – 5in10 with Benjamin Beuerle, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.03.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9035.


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