Russian Scientists Fear Warming May Bring Disease

Russians like to joke that they might be the only people to benefit from global warming. At least, they say, it might temper Russia's notoriously cold winters. But scientists in Moscow are concerned that increasing temperatures will help spread malaria and other diseases to new areas.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We turn now to Russia for today's installment of Climate Connections. That's our yearlong series with National Geographic about the effects of climate change. Many Russians believe global warming could bring some relief from their legendarily harsh winters. Others worry that climate change is already having a negative impact by helping spread malaria and other diseases to new areas.

NPR's Gregory Feifer is in Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Russian winter may be just setting in but on the streets of central Moscow, many say they're sick of it already.

Mr. DMITRI ASTAHOV(ph) (Travel Agent): (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Travel agent Dmitri Astahov says he'd be happy if Russia's climate heats up a few degrees. President Vladimir Putin made the same point at a conference on climate change several years ago.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) You often hear in Russia, either seriously or as a joke, that it's no big deal if temperatures rise two or three degrees. Maybe it's good. We'd spend less money on fur coats.

FEIFER: Putin didn't make clear his own views on the subject but he did say farmers are happy climate change is raising their crop yields.

High-power ventilators heat the air inside the sprawling greenhouse near Moscow. Here an agriculture company named Billiot Dutcho(ph) raises endless seeming rows of brightly lit green lettuce, and Vladimir Landichev(ph), one of the company's directors, says he's another of those who welcome warmer temperatures.

Mr. VLADIMIR LANDICHEV (Director, Billiot Dutcho): (Through translator) Prices for energy are soaring all over the world. The rise in temperature of one degree overnight here means we save 3,000 cubic meters of natural gas. That would make our products more competitively priced.

FEIFER: But others say climate change would hurt Russia's economy.

Alexei Kokorin of the World Wildlife Fund says Russia's agricultural south is seeing more heat waves and droughts.

Mr. ALEXEI KOKORIN (Coordinator for Russia, WWF Climate Change Program): (Through translator) Russia's biggest agricultural zone is in the south. We're expecting a 20 to 25 percent drop in crop capacity. That's very serious negative effect of global warming.

FEIFER: Some experts say average temperatures in Russia are set to rise by almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2030. Spring already comes a week earlier than it did 20 years ago and Kokorin echoes the concerns of some scientists who say the shorter winter is helping spread diseases such as tropical malaria.

Mr. KOKORIN: (Through translator) There were no registered cases of malaria in the Moscow region until the 1970s. Since then, we've seen 400,000 cases of so-called three-day malaria. That's like a bad flu for healthy adults but can be very serious for children and the elderly. It's far too many cases.

FEIFER: In the Moscow laboratories of the Institute of Parasitology, the flick of a switch turns on a fluorescent light above a cage and brings hundreds of swarming flies to life.

(Soundbite of swarming flies)

FEIFER: Here, scientists are studying the development of diseases spread by ticks and insects. Lyudmila Ganushkina says Russia saw a dramatic rise this year in reports of tick-born encephalitis, a virus that can cause fever and is occasionally fatal.

Dr. LYUDMILA GANUSHKINA (Scientist, Institute of Medical Parasitology and Tropical Medicine): (Through translator) Russia's (unintelligible) are becoming more humid and that's encouraging the growth of trees. So the forests are spreading and now they are new areas into which ticks can spread.

FEIFER: The ticks live under the forest earth and emerge in spring to feed on passing animals. The earlier the thaw the more time the insects are active. Ganushkina says other diseases are also spreading in Russia including mosquito-borne dengue fever and West Nile virus. But like many Russian scientists, Ganushkina dismisses the apparently logical conclusion that climate change is behind the rise in infections. Higher temperatures do cause mosquito populations to expand, but Ganushkina insists it takes more than an increase in the number of mosquitoes to increase the number of malaria infections, because in the case of malaria, the insects become carriers only after drinking infected blood.

Ms. GANUSHKINA: (Through translator) Everyone is saying how terrible it is that diseases are increasing here. But they are not caused by global warming. It's just that more infected people are coming to Russia like migrant workers from Central Asia.

FEIFER: Ganushkina is also one of many Russian scientists who see rising global temperatures aren't the result of man-made climate change, but caused by a natural cycle of changing weather patterns. She says scientists in the West have raised the alarm over global warming only to attain lucrative research grants by pursuing a fashionable cause.

But the World Wildlife Fund's Alexei Kokorin says such attitudes help lead to a shortage of encephalitis vaccine this summer. He says the failure to take climate change seriously is a psychological barrier that's preventing Russia from addressing the consequences of global warming let alone battling its causes.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

NORRIS: For other Climate Connection stories and the latest on global warming from National Geographic, go to our Web site and search for Climate Connections.

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