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Soviet and Russian perspectives on geoengineering and climate management


Soviet science contributed significantly to our understanding of anthropogenic climate change and, as part of this, played a central role in the emerging science underpinning climate modification and geoengineering initiatives. A key focus of discussion was the use of stratospheric aerosols linked to the innovative ideas of Mikhail Budyko and colleagues. This work had its origins in what has been termed the theory of aerosol climatic catastrophe, which gained prominence in the Soviet context during the early 1970s. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the ideas of Budyko concerning the use of stratospheric aerosols were advanced by Yuri Izrael and his collaborators. The associated body of work gained traction during the 2000s and engendered a wider debate concerning the efficacy of geoengineering solutions amongst Russia's climate scientists. The legacies of this scientific discussion are also evident in recent high-level international debates such as those linked to the activities of the IPCC. While significant geopolitical obstacles remain in the way of an international agreement linked to the possible deployment of geoengineering measures, interest continues to grow. The maturity of Russian science in the area of geoengineering and climate modification ensures that it remains an important voice within the broader scientific debate. At the same time, the progressive isolation of Russian science from the international scene due to wider geopolitical events risks deflecting attention away from contemporary popular and political debate in this area and alienating this rich scientific tradition at a critical juncture.


Geoengineering has emerged as an area of significant scientific and popular debate during the course of the 21st Century (e.g., Royal Society, 2009; Lawrence et al., 2018; Morton, 2015). Geoengineering solutions, that is “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system, in order to moderate global warming” (Royal Society, 2009, p. ix), have until relatively recently been regarded with skepticism by significant parts of the scientific and policy community due to the unprecedented challenges presented by large-scale manipulation of the Earth's climate system. Concern has embraced environmental, scientific, geopolitical, technical and ethical aspects (e.g., Biermann, 2021; Carlson et al., 2022; Crutzen, 2006; de Coninck et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2017; Marland, 1996; Robock, 2008; Sillmann et al., 2015; Trisos et al., 2018). Nevertheless, the growing urgency of the climate change issue, due to the weakness of global political solutions, continues to drive related scientific activity and interest (Frumhoff & Stephens, 2018). The historical roots of geoengineering science offer a further arena for critical discussion (e.g., Fleming, 2010; Oomen & Meiske, 2021) and linked analysis opens up, amongst other things, the way in which geoengineering ideas are shaped by socio-cultural context. Insight offered by an examination of the intellectual and political framing of geoengineering solutions has been advanced recently by Schubert (2022). In overviewing the place of geoengineering post-1945, Schubert suggests phases during which the interplay between the prevailing science and the state shifted, resulting in different approaches to the broader geoengineering agenda, and culminating in the most recent period where “we can observe how climate engineering is becoming increasingly embedded in a basic research agenda for the atmospheric and oceanographic sciences. It is explored in this context as “just science,” concerning mere technicalities, or matters of fact” (Schubert, 2022, p. 10).

Within this area of debate, analysis of the historical contributions of Soviet and Russian science is given short shrift. Russian science has a longstanding interest in the potential of managing climatic processes to effect large-scale change stretching back to the mid-Soviet period. This intellectual legacy remains of significance in the 21st Century not only in terms of the underlying science but also with respect to the broader framing of the discussion. For example, the Soviet case study has the potential to complicate aspects of the broad typology of Schubert's aforementioned longue durée picture of geoengineering due to the particularities of science-state interaction during the mid- to late Soviet period, although a deeper analysis of this aspect is beyond the scope of the current paper. The Putin administration's subdued engagement with the Paris Agreement and climate change agenda (e.g., Poberezhskaya, 2016; Tynkkynen & Tynkkynen, 2018), has undermined assessment of the debate concerning climate mitigation and, by extension geoengineering, within Russia. And, Russia's invasion of Ukraine promises to further reduce engagement with Russian science in this and other areas. Thus, the paper's underlying aim is to provide deeper understanding of Russia's rich scientific tradition with respect to geoengineering, and to provide insight into the shape of recent debate amongst the country's scientific community. It is argued that Soviet scientific work related to climate modification at a global scale was characterized by a considered and wide-ranging discussion that embodied a clear sense of the inherent dangers associated with manipulating complex natural systems (e.g., Oldfield, 2021). Activity in this area was arguably more pronounced than that found in the West due to a deep-seated belief in science and technology. In addition, there was a profound awareness amongst parts of the scientific community of humankind's growing influence within the Earth's biosphere, which was distinct from the cruder versions of society-nature interaction promulgated by the Soviet state and certain areas of Soviet science. A particular focus that emerged from this broad area of interest concerned the use of stratospheric sulfur aerosols to mitigate the excesses of anthropogenic climate change; a focus that continued to play an influential role in the debates around climate change and associated mitigations post-1991. This area of thought intermingled with the work of other Russian scientists which tended to mirror discussion within the wider international climate community. The opening section provides an overview of early Russian and Soviet interest in modifying weather and climate, before moving on to explore the emergence of a focused body of work linked to geoengineering and driven forward by the climate scientist Mikhail Budyko (1920–2001) and his colleagues. The third section examines the post-1991 period and follows the activities of Yuri Izrael and his collaborators in championing the earlier work of Budyko framed by a perceived weakness in the architecture of the Kyoto Protocol and its basic inability to address the challenge of climate change. The associated body of work gained traction during the 2000s and engendered a wider debate concerning the efficacy of the geoengineering solutions amongst Russia's climate scientists. The ensuing debate is assessed in more detail below.


Soviet science has contributed significantly to our understanding of anthropogenic climate change (e.g., Doose & Oldfield, 2019; Oldfield, 2018) and, as part of this, played a central role in the emerging science underpinning weather and climate modification which in time morphed into large-scale geoengineering initiatives (e.g., Oldfield, 2013). For Soviet science, the desire to understand complex weather and climate systems provided a key impetus for related activity during much of the post-1945 period linked to a state-led drive to utilize natural resources as efficiently and effectively as possible for the betterment of society. The broad debate around geoengineering in the West has been characterized by enduring concerns linked to the consequences of such activity (e.g., Jamieson, 1996), and aspects of this debate were also evident within analogous Soviet and Russian scientific discussions at least with respect to the need for a cautious approach and international agreement (e.g., Izrael & Ryaboshapko, 2011). More specifically, the main proponents of large-scale climate modification within Soviet climate science were careful not to advocate a cavalier approach to such activity, and their work consistently flagged the need for concerted scientific appraisal before any attempt to modify natural processes at scale. This approach was rooted firmly in an appreciation of the complexity of natural systems and the likelihood that any substantive intervention would result in unforeseen and potentially deleterious consequences. As such, this scientific work can be contrasted with the often-reckless actions of other scientists and the Soviet state with respect to society-nature interaction (see Josephson et al., 2013). Something of the triumphalist and populist exhortations of Soviet Marxist rhetoric in this area is captured by the 1959 publication by Adabashev which was also disseminated in English via Progress publishers and entitled “Global-engineering.” The original title in Russian captured the sense of humankind repairing the planet (Chelovek ispravlyaet planetu), and as such conveyed the rather crude but nonetheless influential notion of remolding the physical and natural environment to suit the needs of society.

While certain areas of Soviet science displayed a more considered approach to society-nature than those evidenced within political rhetoric, there was nevertheless a broad appreciation of the growing role and importance of society (and human activity) with respect to the natural world, and an associated effort to conceptualize this shifting relationship to ensure a carefully managed interaction between society and the wider environment in the future. An influential strand of thought in this area was promulgated by the Cosmist movement, which had its roots in the 19th Century, and the work of assorted scholars and intellectuals (e.g., Hagemeister, 1997; Oldfield, 2021; Young, 2012). The scope of the movement is difficult to capture in brief. It drew from diverse intellectual sources in order to emphasize the evolutionary character of humankind's growing environmental reach framed by scientific and technical developments.

For the purposes of this paper, two individuals from within this movement are worth highlighting. First, the nominal founder of the movement, Nikolai Fedorov (1829–1903), was a philosopher of influence, and in line with his futurist thinking he pursued the end of death and the attainment of immortality for humankind together with the associated mastery and regulation of both bodily and natural processes. As part of a 1995 edition of his collected works, a range of articles and writings linked to the regulation of nature was outlined and this included the 1892 essay “Karazan: meteorologist or meteorurge.”

This short piece encompasses both philosophical and science fiction elements. Writing in the introduction to Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction, Yvonne Howell notes that Fedorov uses the essay to draw attention to the “expectation of spiritual salvation that was indivisible from the Russian thinker's scientific rationalism” (Howell, 2015, p. 10). At its heart, Fedorov's essay contrasts the meteorologist and the meteorurge, the former being concerned with predicting weather and the latter with managing weather patterns and processes (Fedorov, 1995, p. 260).

The essay contains various allusions to the ability of humankind to manage and control the processes of the atmosphere. It is also framed by the latent potential Fedorov perceived in Russia as a country. In particular, he argued that Russia's varied landscapes and attendant extremes of climate ensured that greater emphasis was placed on the need for effective climate control than was evident amongst the leading maritime powers of the period (Fedorov, 1995, p. 263).


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