Hurricane Katrina, which has dominated the news over the last fortnight, is part of a wider pattern of extreme weather events. Just within the last few weeks, unusually severe floods in China, India and Central Europe have wreaked havoc. Meanwhile, fires have burned out of control in exceptionally dry conditions in Spain and Portugal. Across Western Siberia, the tundra is beginning to release methane - a particularly lethal greenhouse gas. And new research has revealed that the soil, rather than acting as a sink for carbon emissions from fossil fuel use as previously believed, now returns more of the emissions into the atmosphere than it absorbs.
There is now near-consensus in the scientific community that these and other alarming changes are directly attributable to human-induced global warming. Leading meteorologists are warning that the threat this poses is the greatest ever to face mankind. There is the clear prospect of further lethal climatic disasters, resulting from rising land and oceanic temperatures, which could make the horrors of Katrina appear minor by comparison. Clearly for some time the focus in New Orleans, and in other cities affected by the hurricane, will be on saving lives and dealing with the extraordinary aftermath of the damage. But could it be that Katrina will prove to be the wake-up call to America to put climate change at the top of the political agenda, and for it to move from rhetoric to action?
Unfortunately, it may be the case that only catastrophes like Katrina can shake the world out of its complacency. We continue to avoid the evidence that stares us in the face. Instead we prefer to maintain energy-profligate lifestyles that are relentlessly accelerating the process of climate change with consequences that are in all likelihood irreversible.
Those of us who are ignorant, sceptical or in denial of the facts decrease day by day The prevalent view is now that it is not the responsibility of individuals to respond to the shared predicament we now face but that of government to create a framework that requires us to do so. And until that happens, only extraordinarily principled individuals will be prepared to act.
On the surface, global warming is an increasing political concern. The G8 communiqué on climate change at the end of the Gleneagles Summit in July was a significant and long-awaited expression of political agreement that human beings are contributing to climate change and of the consequent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also welcome was the explicit acknowledgement of the UN as the body that must ultimately take the lead on negotiations around the creation of an international framework to ensure that climate change is tackled globally and fairly.
Nevertheless, there are a number of grounds for serious disquiet. First, the communiqué was rhetorical rather than practical. It stated that the G8 will "act with resolve and urgency" to reduce greenhouse gases, yet no targets were set to that end. Second, the conclusions were based on the false assumption that the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity in affluent countries around the world can largely be achieved through the combination of more efficient use of fossil fuels and increased research, development and investment in technology, particularly in renewable energy. In practice, this cannot be sufficient either on the scale or in the timescale required. Third, both within the communiqué and indeed across the economies of every country in the world, the view continues to be universally held that growth is the primary objective of public policy and that an adequate response to climate change need not and must not be allowed to limit that. Business as usual and preferred lifestyles, albeit with minor modifications, remain the order of the day.
Thus, crucial connections are not being made. Even in the week of the G8 Summit, with words of alarm about climate change still ringing in the ear, Britain celebrated its success in the flamboyant competition to host the 2012 Olympics. Bidding hosts made no reference to the hundreds of thousands of spectators and participants who would be making long-distance flights to their cities, apparently oblivious of the ecological consequences. And that is just one global jamboree held every four years. Almost every profession and sport holds annual events in different world locations to which typically large numbers of participants fly. Were they to be questioned, they might well now express concern about climate change and, with current trends, the consequent alarming prospects for their children. But they are either unaware of or choose to ignore the personal contribution that their return flight makes to accelerating the process. Even the progressive broadsheets fail to make the connection. Their reports on climate change and their expressions of concern about it in their leader columns are juxtaposed with the promotion of distant destinations and cheap flights to them, presumably with unintended irony.
The near-universal failure to make the connection between energy-intensive lifestyles and ecological disaster is a disturbing illustration of collective amnesia. As a consequence, an increasing majority of the population is inadvertently complicit in a process that is already reducing the quality of life of literally billions of people, and which will almost certainly cause the deaths of millions in the near and longer-term future. The only strategy now open to government is to act resolutely to slow the pace of damaging change. Yet the scale of preventive action it is actually taking is pathetically inadequate.
Many of those who are concerned with global warming unwisely believe it can be dealt with by taxing fuel more highly, by tree-planting and perhaps by carbon sequestration, and by buying emission rights from countries whose economies have not yet achieved the levels of success in raising material standards living that we have achieved in the West. Even those supposedly in the vanguard of the response to global warming, such as the green lobby and progressive local authorities, advocate naïve remedies. Owing to their limited powers and resources to bring about the necessary major transformation of our practices, their efforts are largely focussed on the actions that the public can be encouraged to take in terms of exhortation, pledges and commitments. They believe that strategies of promoting and subsidising voluntary action, based on better education and the wider take-up of energy saving measures, will deliver in time the essential degree of reduction required. This is well-meaning, but frankly wishful thinking.
Of course, it suits government very well that these strategies are put on the table by those at the greener end of the spectrum. This enables politicians and civil servants to maintain their faith in the effectiveness of "soft"' policy options and relieves them of the need to admit that the costs of damage from climate change already significantly exceed the benefits of our energy-profligate lifestyles. The government now surely knows that this approach can do no more than scratch the surface of the problem. To believe that most people will be prepared to forego much of the current lifestyles voluntarily is to live in cloud-cuckoo land.
There is, however, some room for optimism. There is growing international support for the Global Commons Institute's Contraction & Convergence framework - an ingenious mechanism which as soon as one understands it immediately appears to be the only way forward. It is based on principles of precaution and equity enshrined in the UN Climate Treaty: the process by which the future allocation of carbon rations becomes equal per capita globally by an agreed year, while aggregate global emissions are reduced year-on-year to their relatively safe level of concentration. Of course it is only governments that can enforce a system in which individuals exercise their responsibilities in this way. Could anyone reasonably argue that policy can be formulated on the proposition of an unequal distribution of the capacity of the global commons to absorb a quantity of greenhouse gases that does not lead to a serious destabilisation of the world's climate?
Contraction & Convergence will require the UK to reduce its current average per capita carbon dioxide emissions of roughly 10 tons (two-and-a-half times the world average) to about one-and-a-half tons by 2030. You can easily calculate your own rough annual carbon dioxide emissions from the table on page 35 and see how this current total to relates to the one-and-a-half ton total that would need to be your limit if the damage from climate change is to be limited sufficiently. In most cases, the gap between our current habits and the way we need to be living is enormous. To take just one example: the carbon dioxide emission equivalents per passenger from just one round flight from London to New York and back are about three times this entire annual allowance.
Contraction & Convergence would also have important effects at an international level. Current economic activity and personal lifestyles have created a vicious cycle in which in general the affluent world has been advantaged by its use of fossil fuels whilst the Third World has suffered an unequal share of the consequent damage. One of the substantial benefits of the C&C framework is that it reverses this process by creating a virtuous spiral. It puts a premium on conservation for everyone: people who are not contributing to degrading the planet's climate system, principally but not exclusively those living in Third World countries, become recipients of revenue arising from the sale of their unused carbon entitlements to those still engaging in energy-profligate activity. And this structured synergy between social justice, market forces and human survival makes the "price of carbon" equal to the price of survival. This then inevitably leads to a rapid international embarkation on the route to equal per capita emissions of greenhouse gases.
Overall the C&C strategy has unique characteristics: first and foremost, by its very nature, it assures governments of success in delivering the internationally agreed degree of reduction in greenhouse gases. This is in marked contrast to a strategy relying on the setting of targets which may not be met "owing to unforeseen circumstances" and for which it would therefore not even be possible to apportion blame for failure. Furthermore, personal carbon rationing will act as a driver towards limiting the awesome impact of climate change far more effectively than simply trying to encourage individuals to adopt green practices.
The prime responsibility for such a radical transformation lies with world leaders. They could learn invaluable lessons from history - if only they were willing to do so. In the years leading up to Second World War, British and other governments spent a long period in denial of the threat of Fascism and a further period trying to deal with it by appeasement. Both these mistakes proved costly. Finally, leaders faced up to the dreadful truth, and the struggle for survival could begin in earnest. So it has been with the threat of climate change: years of denial, followed by years of kidding ourselves that it could be dealt with painlessly. Only if we face up to the severity of the crisis can we even begin to take appropriate action.
We should think back to the late summer of 1939. Against the reneging of the promises made by Hitler in Munich 18 months previously and the possible need to go to war with fascist Germany, no one proposed a referendum on this crucial decision - it was left to Parliament to reach a vote. And, with war in prospect war, Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of the time, did not simply invite the population to eat less owing to the inevitable curtailment of food imports, he imposed food rationing; nor did he issue a call to arms, he imposed military conscription. So it is today. The time for debate is past. We need to confront the emergency.
So far, we have been in the phoney war. To have any hope of winning, we now need to begin the war in earnest. It will be uncomfortable, but it is our only hope.
Without urgent action, far more ambitious and visionary than our government has demonstrated to date, we will be handing over a dying planet to the next generation. By its delay in adopting Contraction and Convergence (and logically therefore introducing carbon rationing) as the only realistic and effective course of action to take, government is running a distinct risk that it will be charged with gross incompetence for its mishandling of what increasingly looks like being the worst world catastrophe that it is possible to contemplate. With our politicians making decisions on our behalf, at this rate we will be justly accused by our children of outrageous selfishness in disregarding the consequences for them of our energy-profligacy.
Dr Mayer Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute. He is co-author of 'How We Can Save the Planet' (Penguin, £7.99).