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How sanctions against Russia could set back climate change work in the Arctic

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Isolating Russia from the international community is bringing key work on climate change in the Arctic to a halt, in part because Russia currently chairs the international group known as the Arctic Council. This as the United Nations warns time is running out to reverse catastrophic global warming. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report from the Arctic Circle in Norway, where scientists hope for a thaw in relations.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Working in the Arctic is dangerous. Norwegian Coast Guard crew insisted NPR's team put on Arctic survival suits before a short ride on a skiff outside the city of Tromso. It's like a combination between a wetsuit and a snowsuit designed to keep you alive in the water for maybe an hour while you get rescued. Aboard the ship, a conversation about search and rescue quickly turns to a conversation about fish.

PAL BRATBAK: So there is fishery cooperation between Norway and Russia.

LAWRENCE: Captain Pal Bratbak (ph) rescues fishermen from any nation as they follow cod around the Arctic Ocean.

BRATBAK: The cod, the cold fishes, they don't see the border. So we help every boat in our area.

LAWRENCE: Management of the Barents Sea cod fleet is considered a success worldwide, both economically and environmentally, says Bratbak.

BRATBAK: And that's important for Norway and European Union and NATO and the whole world. And it's important for the Russians.

LAWRENCE: But he worries things are different since Ukraine. The coast guard also enforces the fishing laws. Years ago, in a rare case, a Russian trawler fled from a coast guard ship with Norwegian inspectors on board into Russian waters. Back then, Russian authorities promptly arrested the captain and returned the inspectors. Captain Bratbak hopes the same cooperation would happen today.

BRATBAK: In these days, Russian can use other methods to negotiate, like the Ukraine conflict. They are willing to use more power than talking.

LAWRENCE: Captain Bratbak says he's not too worried. These fishermen know their work depends on cooperation. The same goes with scientists.

KIM HOLMEN: One of the important issues up here is, of course, climate change.

LAWRENCE: Kim Holmen is with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, where the international Arctic Council would normally be coordinating climate research.

HOLMEN: Well, the Arctic Council's office is in this building. And they are, of course, on hold. It's not something you can point out that failed today, but it's ongoing.

LAWRENCE: Holmen has worked on Arctic climate science for over 30 years, collaborating across the border. Russia has about half the world's arctic landmass, including permafrost that, if it melts, could release megatons of trapped carbon and greenhouse gases. Scientists like Holmen count on their Russian colleagues.

HOLMEN: I mean, we have common publications. We have collected data together. We've been on each other's cruises. I've been to people's homes in Saint Petersburg, not only done scientific, but good friends.

LAWRENCE: At the moment, Holmen isn't in contact with those friends. The lesson from back in Soviet days is that communication will only get them into trouble, which would delay getting back to work. Elana Wilson Rowe, with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo, says the drive to sanction Russia has pushed aside scientific cooperation.

ELANA WILSON ROWE: And at some point in the future, when something has changed within Russia or reached some sort of accord with Ukraine, there's a chance that science cooperation might be one of the first things to come back online.

LAWRENCE: But she warns some things may not come back. Some Russian academics have surprised her with full-throated endorsements of Vladimir Putin's war. And Russia has ambitions in the warming Arctic that includes control of the Northeast Passage, which would cut shipping time between China and Europe and exploiting newly accessible oil and mineral wealth. Russia's pariah status may not bode well for international cooperation on climate, says Professor Rowe

ROWE: As the situation changes and hopefully improves for the people of Ukraine, there will be some opening. But I think it will certainly feel like a new chapter in Arctic cooperation. And it's probably a very chilly one.

HOLMEN: Polar scientists are used to the cold.

LAWRENCE: Kim Holmen says the Arctic is in danger. But he knows his Russian colleagues also want to save it.

HOLMEN: We hope and wish to pick up when it thaws.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Tromso, Norway.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEP BEVING'S "AB OVO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.