Pretty much every crucial line in President Joe Biden’s recent marathon news conference has been dissected by now — except one, the one that may turn out to be the most prescient. You had to be listening closely, because it went by fast. It was when Mr. Biden told President Vladimir Putin that Russia has something much more important to worry about than whether Ukraine looks East or West, namely, “a burning tundra that will not freeze again naturally.”
My translation: Yo, Vladimir, while you’ve been busy putting your “little green men” into Ukraine — all those masked Russian soldiers in green uniforms without insignia — little green shoots have been popping up in your warming tundra. Siberia had a totally freakish, hyper-extreme weather event, a forest fire that firefighters had to stomp out with their boots because the local water sources were all frozen.
I'm pretty sure this was the first time a U.S. president ever tried to persuade a Russian leader to get out of his neighbor's front yard and focus instead on saving his own backyard — because as Siberia is affected by climate change, it will threaten Russia's stability a lot more than anything that happens in Ukraine.
Alas, Mr. Putin is part of a generation of world leaders who know how to build their popularity only on the strength of their resistance to enemies abroad and at home. But we are now at the start of a transition, I predict, where more and more leaders will try to build — or need to build — their stature by generating resilience for their people and neighbors in a warming and water-stressed world.
This excerpt from a Moscow Times story in November explains why — and what Mr. Biden was referring to. It’s dystopian:
“An unseasonably rare forest fire has engulfed the Russian tundra as the country faces significant changes from climate change, Interfax reported.” Some 900 acres “are burning despite below-zero temperatures in the Magadan region some 10,000 kilometers east of Moscow. ‘The tundra is usually covered with snow at this time of year, so such fires occur extremely rarely,’ Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying. Firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the flames are hampered by frozen water reservoirs, Interfax reported. Video posted online shows firefighters working to stamp out the fire with their feet and with tree branches.”
And no wonder: Russia’s territory is warming 2.5 times faster than the planet on average, and the situation there is going to get only worse. On June 20, 2020, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, hit 100.4 degrees — the highest temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.
I have zero illusions that Mr. Putin noticed Mr. Biden suggesting Russia is much more vulnerable to climate change expansion than NATO expansion — or would be deterred if he did. He doesn’t strike me as a guy much interested in the climate. But the climate is interested in him.
Mr. Putin may choose to ignore that. His successor won’t have that option.
“Roughly 65% of Russia’s territory is covered in permafrost,” The Moscow Times explained in another report. “As air temperatures have risen in recent decades, this soil that has been frozen for millennia has begun to thaw.” If this melting accelerates, it is “expected to cause significant damage to human settlements and key energy and transportation infrastructure. And as permafrost melts, it releases long-stored greenhouse gases like methane, triggering an accelerating feedback loop of warming.”
Sure, one day some of this tundra may become rich farmland. But getting from here to there — watch out: “As earth’s climate zones shift from the Equator to the poles, previously forested lands are turning into deserts,” The Moscow Times added. The republic of Dagestan, some 930 miles south of Moscow, is near Russia’s agricultural heartland, “and experts worry that desertification could spread to these regions and impact the country’s food supply.”
These same pressures around climate and drought are already spurring some of the new generation of Middle East leaders to subtly shift the basis of their authority from resistance to resilience.
Consider another big story that also did not get the attention it deserved — the energy-water deal that Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates tried to finalize in November.
The essence of the deal was this: The UAE — whose leader, Mohammed bin Zayed, is the most prominent Arab ruler working to build his stature by delivering resilience — would finance the construction by an Emirati firm of a huge solar power plant in Jordan that would generate cheap electricity for Israel, which would build a desalination plant on the Mediterranean and send water to an increasingly parched Jordan.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the signing, Axios first reported. Saudi Arabia came in from nowhere at the eleventh hour and tried to pressure the UAE into scrapping the deal. It was not because the Saudis were opposed to the concept. Just the opposite. It was reportedly because the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the UAE's more powerful neighbor, wanted himself to be seen as the region's dominant player in green energy deals, not the UAE and Jordan — so he could be seen as more of a resilience figure than a resistance figure. As a result, the deal was softened to a memorandum of understanding.
MBS, as the crown prince is known, has been trying to diversify and green the Saudi economy, to shift it away from its dependence on petrochemicals. But this has been overshadowed by Saudi Arabia’s continued involvement in the bloody tribal civil war in Yemen — where resistance-focused leadership is still the only game in town.
Nevertheless, just as Mr. Biden’s news conference was probably the first time a U.S. president had tried to deter a Russian leader by invoking Mother Nature over missiles, this may have been the first Arab-Arab diplomatic row over which leader would be seen as generating more resilience than resistance on climate.
But it gets better. Now this struggle between resistance leaders and resilience leaders is moving inside countries as well.
EcoPeace Middle East is an alliance of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists that has been pushing for a regional strategy called a Green Blue Deal. It would build on the Jordan-Israel-UAE accord but also include the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza and extend to both freshwater and electricity. Two EcoPeace leaders, Gidon Bromberg from Israel and Nada Majdalani from the Palestinian Authority, were invited last week to present their ideas to the U.N. Security Council.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian U.N. representative showed little interest in their proposal in his own remarks to the Security Council. And the Israeli U.N. ambassador, Gilad Erdan — a right-wing holdover from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s era — used his time to score points with right-wingers at home, by bashing the Palestinian Authority for being unresponsive to Israeli overtures to collaborate on the environment.
This prompted Israel’s current environmental protection minister, Tamar Zandberg, to issue a public rebuke of Mr. Erdan for putting out information “incompatible with the truth and in a style that does not represent the minister’s position.”
Ms. Zandberg said she and her Palestinian counterpart have already launched joint projects in the fields of “environment and waste” and their “work is progressing well in a different atmosphere than before ... based on the understanding that climate change has no borders and that the two peoples will benefit from this collaboration.”
This is just the beginning of a whole new kind of power struggle within and between countries based on who is leading with resistance and who is leading with resilience.
Let the games begin.
Thomas L. Friedman (Twitter: @tomfriedman) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.