Milan, Italy — Here they go again. In this vibrant northern Italy city, with the snowy Alps in the background and the most gorgeous Gothic cathedral in Europe in the foreground, thousands of delegates from 188 countries have gathered for a United Nations conference to discuss how to implement the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gases caused by human activity and, so the controversial theory goes, limit global warming.

The meeting is called COP-9, for “conference of the parties, nine.” It’s an annual moveable feast, funded with gouts of U.N. money (the budget is $18 million a year). What’s expected to happen here? Basically, nothing — besides the aggrandizement of the ever-growing climate-change industry, fueled by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have been scaring the pants off donors for a decade.

There are a lot of gloomy environmentalists walking around the halls of the gigantic Feria Milano. They have finally gotten the message that Kyoto is on its deathbed.

It is now six years since the agreement was signed, and it still has not been ratified. “We would have liked to announce and welcome here, in Milan, at COP 9, the first meeting of the parties of the Kyoto Protocol,” said Altero Matteoli, Italy’s environment minister, in his welcoming remarks to the conference. “Unfortunately, we did not have this opportunity.”

Nor is he likely to have it in the future. The treaty requires the assent of countries accounting for 55 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by industrial nations. With Russia’s refusal to ratify, the tally is just 44 percent. The Russians may change their minds if the Europeans provide enough blandishment and bribery, but few realists here are counting on a reversal. Instead, the theme that has developed in the early days of this extravaganza, which began Dec. 1 and ends on Friday, is “beyond Kyoto.”

That was the title of a 170-page report issued by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a well-heeled U.S.-based NGO. The report was announced at a sparsely attended press conference (of a dozen attendees, three were from TechCentralStation).

Eileen Claussen, the Pew Center’s president, began by saying, “We are not ready to conclude that the Kyoto Protocol is dead, but whether or not it enters into force, we have to think about what comes next.”

In other words, Kyoto is only a “first step,” as Claussen put it, and it is time to move on to leapfrog to step two, whether step one is achieved or not.

Similar sentiments were offered by Boerge Brende, the Norwegian environment minister who also serves as chairman of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. In an interview, he said, “We need to start involving developing nations” — which Kyoto exempts. “I’m not saying they have to promise to cut emissions,” he added quickly.

Meanwhile, another influential NGO, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has issued a report that contends that there is significant political and business support in the U.S. for mandatory emissions cuts even though the Bush Administration “has consistently rejected such a responsible approach” and has “time and time again picked short-term gains for big business over the long-term stability of the planet.”

But Claussen, Brende and the WWF appear to be whistling past the graveyard. The Russians have all but buried Kyoto — and for the same reasons that President Bush rejected it as “fatally flawed in early 2001: The agreement is based on uncertain science, and it will cause serious economic harm. As Dr. Yury Izrael, a Russian scientific leader, put it, “The most important issue is whether the Kyoto Protocol would improve the climate, stabilize it, or make it worse. This is not very clear.”

The shaky science behind Kyoto has become manifest this year with the publication of articles in scientific journals that show that the current century is not the warmest in the past millennium; that the “hockey-stick” formulation by Michael Mann, showing sharply rising temperatures, is faulty; and that the Earth’s major climate swings are likely linked to the activity of stars, including our Sun.

The Russian decision, however, is mainly rooted in economics. As Andrei Illarionov, who is President Vladimir Putin’s economic advisor, put it, “The United States and Australia have calculated that they cannot bear the economic consequences of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. If they aren’t rich enough to deal with those consequences, my question is whether Russia is much richer than the U.S. or Australia?”

In fact, it is the growing Russian economy that may have put the nail in the Kyoto coffin. The Europeans constructed the treaty in a way which, they expected, would compel Russia to ratify for financial reasons. The agreement requires that industrial nations reduce their emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels. Russia’s emissions today are about 32 percent below those of 1990 because of the post-Soviet industrial meltdown. The assumption was that the Russians could then sell credits for these reductions to other nations under a trading scheme.

But Putin and his advisors believe Russia will meet a goal of doubling Gross Domestic Product by 2010. If that happens, then Russia’s emissions, says Illarionov, will rise to 104 percent of their 1990 levels. Thus, Russia won’t have emissions credits to sell. To the contrary, it will have to cut emissions itself, with depressive effects on its economy.

“Russia today has the opportunity to sell quotas [i.e., credits],” said Putin in an October speech at a World Economic Forum meeting in Moscow. “We hope such opportunities no longer exist.”

With that statement, Putin summed up the case against Kyoto: At a time when so many developing nations are struggling to provide decent lives for their citizens, Kyoto-style measures will prolong poverty. And, with the science of warming so uncertain, the question is, For what?

With such serious drawbacks, no wonder the NGO “extremists” who dominate these conferences want to move “beyond Kyoto.” But opponents of mandatory emissions cuts would be mistaken if they become complacent with their successes of the past few years. It’s almost certain that the environmental activists and their U.N. colleagues will regroup and come out swinging again — if only to keep this lucrative moveable feast moving.