He may yet save the world

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Bang on cue, on the very day that Tony Blair announced his political mortality, fate and President Putin combined to indicate how he could secure a golden legacy. For on Thursday the Russian cabinet announced - after years of hesitation - that it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, enabling the international treaty to combat global warming to come into force. This sets the stage for what Mr Blair, in a major speech less than three weeks ago, identified as a top priority for next year: getting the whole international community, including the United States, finally to combine in heading off catastrophic climate change.

Bang on cue, on the very day that Tony Blair announced his political mortality, fate and President Putin combined to indicate how he could secure a golden legacy. For on Thursday the Russian cabinet announced - after years of hesitation - that it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, enabling the international treaty to combat global warming to come into force. This sets the stage for what Mr Blair, in a major speech less than three weeks ago, identified as a top priority for next year: getting the whole international community, including the United States, finally to combine in heading off catastrophic climate change.

The Russian decision - fashionably dismissed as unlikely or impossible, but predicted in The Independent in Sunday in May - dramatically changes the dynamic. The pressure is now on President Bush. His administration is now almost entirely isolated abroad, and increasingly out of touch at home, with polls showing large majorities in favour of action, big Republican states taking it, and Congressional opinion moving in its favour. But it also means that, in Mr Blair's terminology, the world can "move on", stop arguing about Kyoto, and - since the treaty only begins to tackle the problem - start working out the next steps, in a way that includes the United States.

Mr Blair, by common consent, is the single person in the world best placed to pull this off. He has positioned himself with characteristic skill, making clear his personal commitment to the issue, insisting on including the US, and already looking beyond Kyoto. Next year he heads both the EU and the G8 group of the world's most powerful countries, and has announced his determination to use his position to make major progress.

He has, of course, much to do. He will have to make it clear that this is now a priority for the rest of his premiership, not just for a year. He will need to get the rest of his government to be far more supportive of his efforts than it has been so far. He will have to persuade the US that the issue can be addressed only through the UN, and do more to cut the pollution that causes global warming at home. But as he contemplates his legacy, now threatened to be dominated by Iraq, he can see the chance of a triumph that could eclipse even that disaster. Maybe lame ducks can still save the world.

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