Maybe we are on the brink of one of those rare moments that transform the world for the better. For the Obama administration's moves to forge a climate partnership with China offer much the best chance yet of averting the most serious crisis civilisation has faced.
Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing next week could prove far more important than President Nixon's "China initiative", which opened up the giant country to the world almost 40 years ago.
There is absolutely no hope of even beginning to get to grips with global warming without the United States and China, which between them account for nearly half of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide. Yet – even as science shows that time to avoid catastrophic climate change is running out – international negotiations on a new treaty have been paralysed by a deadly game of "after you, Claude", where both countries have refused to budge unless the other acts first.
If the partnership comes off, the relationship could be transformed, so that – as David Sandalow, a member of the Obama transition team who has just co-authored a new report, puts it – "instead of each country pointing to the other as a reason to do less, they spur each other on to do more". At the least, it would revolutionise the hitherto fragile prospects of international agreement at a vital meeting in Copenhagen in December, billed as the last chance to avoid disaster.
There are reasons to hope. Both countries are increasingly worried about the effects of global warming, whether droughts in California and northern China, or floods in southern China or New Orleans. More important, both have been doing a surprising amount while officially remaining obdurate.
Despite former President Bush's oil-soaked obstinacy, more than half of US states have acted to cut emissions, and more than 800 towns and cities have promised to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets. In a neat mirror image, the Chinese government has been admirably active – sparking a renewable energy boom and promising to cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of GDP by a fifth by 2010 – while finding it hard to get local governments to co-operate. With President Obama promising big emissions cuts, a deal seems possible.
Huge obstacles remain. Each country fears the other will use climate measures to obtain competitive advantage. And each is struggling with financial turmoil. So the best approach will be to emphasise the economic advantages in adopting a green new deal as the way to stimulate future growth.
Clean energy is central to this, and is rapidly expanding in both countries. So the place to start may be to focus on the opportunities to increase prosperity and reduce pollution through jointly developing things such as electric cars, boosting energy efficiency and renewable energy, and finding ways to clean up coal.