Sasha is a producer and cinematographer for Russian television and he's worked on wildlife and science documentaries for more than a decade. While it doesn't sound like a job that is controversial, the topic of climate change is seen in the Russian television industry as a hot topic that should for the most part be ignored. Especially if you value your career or potentially your freedom.
I spoke with Sasha via a Sat Phone and a translator last week. I've agreed to change his name and mask the names of any specific projects he's worked on in an effort to shield his identity.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: You've been filming nature specials for Russian television for more than twenty years. Have you seen seen any evidence of climate change?
A: Definitely. Just look at the "Gateways to Hell" in Siberia. They are these huge holes in the permafrost that look like some combination of a sinkhole and a meteor blast. Government officials will tell you that this is a naturally-occurring phenomena and it's true that they have always happened, but rarely. We're seeing a hundred years worth of activity in a couple of years and it's not a coincidence that it's happening at a time when the climate is warming up in places like the Sakha Republic (in Siberia).
Q: You didn't want to be identified in this piece. Can you tell me why?
A: Discussing climate change is not something that is good for your career. Many viewers don't want to hear about it and the government doesn't believe it's a problem. At least not publicly. It's like the old saying that "no one likes a ringing bell." No one wants to hear about it.
A lot of government officials believe that the warming weather will just make new lands in Russia available for exploration. And when the head of your government is making public jokes that climate change will only mean that Russian women will have to buy fewer furs in the winter...it's not a comfortable situation.
In fact, I've worked on a couple of specials about Arctic areas that we (the Russian government) are claiming in the far north polar regions. On TV, we present these lands as the new frontier and the chance for Russia to exert its dominance in a newly opened-up frontier. It's a strange combination of anti-climate change and an attempt to prove Russian superiority.
Q: I've heard that argument quite a bit from Russian officials. That a warming climate will just open up new farmlands in Siberia and improve everyone's lives in the country.
A: What those same agricultural specialists will tell you in private is that while a warming far north Russia might open up new lands to agriculture, it would like also likely lead to water shortages in Stavropol and Krasnodar. These areas are like the Kansas of our country and the truth is that no one can say for sure what will happen. But ignoring the problem or just pointing out the positives doesn't seem like a smart approach. But it's what we expect in a place where so much money from the oil and gas fields end up in the pockets of the oligarchy and politicians.
Q: You obvious don't agree with that point of view. How difficult it is to work within those restrictions?
A: It's only difficult if I think about it. That's sort of a joke, bu it's true, also. I need this job and if you want to work on Russian television - even on one of the few remaining so-called "independent" networks - you can't afford to annoy the powerful people in the country. I'm just a guy who points the camera.
Q: Do you ever worry about the future of the country, based on what you've seen?
A: All the time. It's hard to film a huge sinkhole in the Siberian permafrost and still be optimistic about the decisions we're making. The government sees these holes as some sort of new tourism attraction. Where I look at it and think "Crap, we are burning holes in Siberia!"
Captain Keith Colburn has been fishing in Alaska's Bering Sea since 1985. And after several decades in the industry, he has the experience and perspective to notice the subtle environmental changes taking place in Alaska. In recent years, Colburn has become one of the few voices in the fishing industry willing to not just say that climate change is real, but to sound the warning about potential changes to the Bering Sea fisheries.
When I spoke with Colburn recently, he was on a charter boat in Hawaii trying to catch fish with his daughter. But the issue of climate change was still foremost on his mind.
Q: You've been a fisherman all your life, you've been in the industry a long time. How has the climate change affected your livelihood and the availability of crab and other fish?
Keith Colburn: We've been fortunate in Alaska that our fish populations have been healthy, even with the climate change. But the thing is, it's impacting everyone. I went to Maine earlier this year and Maine fishermen are probably some of the most stubborn fishermen on the planet. Nobody wants to say things are changing, but they are. I was part of a panel and they didn't want to mention "climate change." They called the panel "The Changes In The Oceans." But the funny thing is, that's a pretty accurate description. Things are changing everywhere.
I'm on a boat off Maui fishing and the Mahi Mahi aren't here yet. They should have been here two months ago. Changes are coming. In Alaska, it's different. I get guys all the time coming up to me, "Hey, I see all of that ice up there...global warming huh?
But that ice masks what's going on. You ask most fishermen what they think of climate change and they say "Grrr...there's no such thing!" But you know what? Look at the weather. In Alaska, we're seeing a lot more erratic weather. In Alaska, in the past ten years we've had the three warmest years on record and the two coldest years. So it's not just about things warming up. It's about crazy, cyclical things happening that we're not used to seeing. Things have changed in all sorts of ways that are more than just about warming, although that's happening as well. A few years ago, you would see maybe one large storm a year. Now, you're seeing seven or nine a year. And it's because the water is warmer and it's making the weather more unpredictable.
Q: How does all of that unpredictability affect your planning for the future? It used to be that an Alaska fishermen could plan on working X number of years and while things might change a bit year-to-year, he knew that when it was time for the next generation to take over, the business would still be there. How do you make plans when you things are changing so quickly?
Keith Colburn: So far, we've been fortunate. Our quotas have remained stable. Yet we can tell the water is getting warmer, the climate is changing and things can't remain this way much longer. It's a bit frightening, because you go out every year and think 'what is all of this going to look like in ten years?'
The thing people don't realize is that the Bering Sea is a neophyte fishery. The fishery there is only maybe 30-40 years old. We've been successful and the Bering Sea has been rated one of the top three sustainable fisheries in the world. But it's fragile and it wouldn't take much of a change to decimate the population. I do know this. Things are changing. And just because you can't predict what's going to happen doesn't make it any less devastating.
Q: Viewers of "Deadliest Catch" know you from your crab fishing and I'm wondering specifically about that part of your business. How much can the climate change before it begins to impact the crab population? How much can the water warm up before it significantly impacts the quotas?
Keith Colburn: It's going to be just the same as we've seen on the East Coast. For instance, Rhode Island used to have a more than 100-million pound a season cod catch. And now it's down to maybe five million. Most of that population has moved north into Maine. What happened in Rhode Island was that as the water warmed, predator fish moved in and started to seek out the cod and other fish that were there. Lobster populations are moving north and at some point you're going to need a Canadian passport to catch lobster on the East Coast.
My concern in Alaska is that we're going to see predator fish moving in. It could be Cod, it could be something else. But my fear is that these fish will move into the warmer water, become more prolific and push out the populations we fish. We just don't know. Scientists really struggle with trying to predict what we're going to fish and when we're going to catch it. And that's the scariest thing right now. We just don't know what's going to happen. We just know it's going to change.
The thing is, the lifespan of a crab is only seven years or so. So it only takes a few years to completely disrupt the biomass as they reproduce.
Q: I suspect it has to be frustrating for fishermen like yourself, because the conversation around climate change has become so politicized. There is all of this arguing about what causes climate change and from your perspective, the important thing is that is changing.
Keith Colburn: Here's the thing. We're a small industry, we have a limited impact on the conversation. But I think it really gets down to all of figuring out how we can lessen our impact on the environment, because every little change might be helpful. Everyone wants microwaves, two DVRs and a big car. But maybe we can't have that. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the oil companies trying to convince us that we're not having an impact on the planet. And we have to figure out a way to combat that and try and save the future of our industry.