Imagining climates past, present and future: Soviet contributions to the science of anthropogenic climate change, 1953-1991

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This paper builds on recent work in the critical geographical literature concerned with advancing a more nuanced engagement with climate change science and linked knowledges. The main aim of this paper is to provide insight into the character of Soviet climate science, and reflect on the contribution of Soviet scientists to the international debate concerning anthropogenic climate change and associated forecasting as it developed from the late 1950s through to the first report of the IPCC in 1990. Such a focus is significant for a number of reasons. First, Soviet contributions are given short shrift in general reviews concerning the development of the basic science underpinning anthropogenic climate change, emerging as a subdued ‘other’ despite their relative importance during this period at the international level. Second, the Soviet contingent also played an influential role in the formation of the IPCC as well as the development of associated debates concerning the establishment of future climate change scenarios. Third, the early IPCC process resulted in the relative marginalisation of Soviet scientific input framed by debates over the most effective way to determine future climate change scenarios. The paper examines the significance of Soviet science for the evolving climate change debate on the international stage, and the related involvement of a handful of Soviet scientists in the activities of international bodies such as the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). It also examines the role of Soviet scientists in the consolidation of a natural science conceptualisation of anthropogenic climate change during the late 1980s. It is shown how the Soviet contingent came to place an emphasis on the use of palaeoclimatic analogues in order to predict future climates, albeit whilst recognising the value of the computer modelling approach favoured by many Western climatologists. Nevertheless, this preference for an analogue approach and resultant debates surfaced strongly during the early work of the IPCC. The robust advancement of General Circulation Models (GCMs) as the prime forecasting technique within Working Group I resulted in the effective side-lining of the Soviet contingent during the process of finalising the first IPCC report in 1990.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-51
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Historical Geography
Early online date6 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018


  • Climate change; Soviet Union; Palaeoclimates; Cold War; IPCC


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