“Climate Change Is Per Se a Transnational Topic” – Interview with Benjamin Beuerle
We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Benjamin Beuerle, who is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Moscow. He holds a PhD from Humboldt University Berlin where he graduated in 2014 with a study on “Russia’s West. Orientation towards the West and Reform Legislation in the Late Tsarist Empire, 1905-1917”. In March 2017, he joined the German Historical Institute Moscow where he is now the academic coordinator of the new research area “Russia’s North Pacific” and since spring 2019 a core member of the submodule “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements”.
What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?
Before joining the “Knowledge Unbound” project, I was already doing research on environmental and climate policy approaches (in a broad sense) in the Soviet Union and (post-Soviet) Russia from the 1970s until today – with a focus on the Far Eastern region. The latter has been related to my role as scientific coordinator of the “Russia´s North Pacific” project that the German Historical Institute Moscow has already started in 2017 in close cooperation with the chair of Russian/Asian Studies at Munich´s LMU.
Within the “Knowledge Unbound” project I can build on this earlier research and am continuing to deal with the same thematic field. However, I am now looking even more closely at transnational connections than hitherto. Thus, I analyze in which ways and to which extent climate, energy and environmental policies in the Soviet Union and Russia on the one hand and in other Asia-Pacific countries on the other hand (China, Japan, South Korea, the US and Canada above all) have been interrelated and influencing one another. In this sense, my research embraces indeed important elements of “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific region” – which is also the title of our submodule.
What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?
I have to admit that the concept of “knowledge” as such didn´t play a big role in my research before I took part in the conceptualization of the “Knowledge Unbound” project and started to do research within it. Obviously, you can do research on environmental and climate policy approaches – and on attitudes towards climate change – without referring to this concept. However, once you are looking at it more closely, it is also obvious that it makes sense to relate the elements just mentioned with the concept of knowledge. Developing and debating environmental and climate policy approaches as well as taking a certain position on climate change presupposes the appropriation of specific knowledge about the state of the environment, its degradation and changing nature, the reasons leading to these changes and about ways for remediating the latter. This knowledge is of course not equivalent to a static set of “facts”, but it is volatile and depending on various influences – on the part of scientists and other experts, the media, NGOs, government agencies, lobbyists, cultural predispositions and various other (f)actors, including transnational influences.
As climate change is per se a transnational topic, it is fair to say that transnational influences and exchange play an especially important role in the creation of knowledge about it. One of the most intriguing and most direct examples for a set of transpacific “knowledge” flow that I am investigating in my research concerns the North Pacific Marine Science Organization. It has been founded in 1992 (after years of discussion and preparation during the cold-war era) and brings together scientists from the US, Canada, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China who are all interested in the ways climate change is affecting – and going to affect – the biosphere of the North Pacific. That means they are producing knowledge about climate change by interacting transnationally and bringing in their various research backgrounds and cultures. This is by the way also an example of the connective nature of the topic of climate change.
Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?
The answer depends on the definition of “recently”. But yes, I continue to be – if not surprised, then at least – fascinated among other aspects by the finding that the late Soviet Union had a decade-long renewable energy development program running, or that thousands of cars in Vladivostok and other late-Soviet towns were controlled and banned from further circulation because of excessive exhaust emissions for lowering urban air pollution. No less interesting to me is the fact that in both cases activists motivated their deeds among others with the necessity to mitigate the danger of an undesirable “climate change of the earth” – in the 1980s! And isn´t it remarkable to see that Russian, American, Canadian, Japanese, South-Korean and Chinese scientists have been doing research together on the impact of climate change on the North Pacific since the 1990s – largely unnoticed by a larger public and undisturbed by all political tensions between these countries? Or that the formerly closed-off Vladivostok has since the 1990s turned into the city with the highest density of cars per inhabitants in Russia because of Japanese second-hand imports – with very ambivalent environmental impacts? These are just some examples for showing that indeed the results of my research continue to intrigue myself and seem to contradict some classic assumptions about Soviet environmental legacies or about the nature of transnational entanglements in environmental terms within the North Pacific region. This doesn´t mean that these other assumptions are wrong, but it indicates that the truth on these questions is indeed considerably more complex and – I would argue – more interesting than many would have thought.