WASHINGTON -- A largely overlooked, widely misinterpreted event in Moscow two weeks ago transformed the international conflict over the environment and growth. On Sept. 29, President Vladimir Putin was expected to open the World Climate Change Conference by announcing Russian ratification of the 1997 Kyoto global warming treaty. Instead, he gave an opposite signal.
Russia's ratification is needed to enforce Kyoto's global requirements for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, with vast economic consequences. Global warming "might even be good," cracked Putin. "We'd spend less money on fur coats." But like Sherlock Holmes's dog that didn't bark, what the Russian leader left unsaid was more important. He didn't say: we shall ratify.
Contrary to claims that Putin was just raising Moscow's asking price, his economic and scientific advisers made clear that Russia opposes Kyoto. The Bush administration is no longer so isolated in the world. A U.S.-Russian partnership against global warming zealots opens the way for a new alignment of nations.
President Bush affirmed two years ago that the U.S. would not ratify Kyoto, opening him to abuse at home and abroad. For the treaty's anti-growth constraints to go into effect, 55 nations responsible for at least 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions must ratify. So far, 119 ratifying nations account for 44 percent of emissions. Russia would have put the treaty over the top, even without the United States.
Almost everybody, anti-Kyoto as well as pro-Kyoto activists, expected the Russians to do just that two weeks ago. Fred L. Smith, president of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, was as surprised by Putin's decision as the environmentalists. The statement issued by Smith was euphoric: "This is the most important development in the public debate over global warming since President Bush's decision." Uncharacteristically, Washington-based environmentalist organizations have yet to issue any statements.
At the Moscow conference, advocates of the treaty accused the Russians of trying to bleed more money from the rest of the world. They may be confused by Putin's circuitous rhetoric, as befits a career Soviet bureaucrat and former KGB officer. Instead of denouncing Kyoto, he merely didn't bark. While United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the Moscow conference by anticipating Russian ratification, Putin said he would wait and see: "We would like to attentively analyze all information."
What Putin really thought came out after his non-ratification brought outraged complaints and accusations that Russia had lost an opportunity. He pushed back at critics with his suggestions that global warming was not so bad if you come from Siberia. He noted that "Russia is a northern country, so if it warms up two or three degrees, it's not terrible."
If any Kyoto supporter was misled by Putin into thinking Russia is just playing for time before it ratifies, his chief economic adviser emphasized at the Moscow conference that this was not the case. Andrei Illarionov declared it is necessary to balance costs against benefits, noting that the U.S. and Australia calculate "they cannot bear the economic consequences of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. If they aren't rich enough to deal with those questions, my question is whether Russia is much richer than the U.S. or Australia."
The Russian scientists were even more resolute. Yuri Izrael, Putin's most influential science adviser, declared: "All the scientific evidence seems to support the same general conclusions, that the Kyoto Protocol is overly expensive, ineffective and based on bad science."
Illarionov combined the economic and scientific factors in ways that Bush aides would do well to emulate: "The temperature of the atmosphere is not rising. . . . For 30 years, diametrically opposite tendencies developed. . . . If we are to double GDP within the next 10 years, this will require an average economic growth rate of 7.2 percent. . . . No country in the world can double its GDP with a lower increase in carbon dioxide omissions or with no increase at all."
This is even stronger than Vladimir Putin's cracks about fur coats. It means George W. Bush will not be faced with a global mandate to undermine the American economy in quest of environmental purity. Maybe the American president really saw something in 2001 when he gazed into the soul of his Russian counterpart.