Back in 2001, I wondered out loud – and in print – if it would take "an environmental 9/11" to finally break the corporate brake that is holding up all action on global warming in America. Since then, New Orleans has drowned, the South-east has dried up so severely the city of Atlanta is nearly out of water, and the skies over California have been turned red by the worst wildfires since records began.
More than a thousand people have died, and more than $70bn worth of property has been destroyed. Seeing Americans huddled together in refugee camps is something that no longer shocks us on the nightly news. Yet still the political debate in the US remains stuck far short of the drastic cuts in carbon emissions we need now if we are to stop this Weather of Mass Destruction.
The science is clear: these apocalyptic weather-events are unlikely to be freak one-offs. While it's hard to link any single hurricane or vast fire to global warming, Katrina and California's wildfires fit into the wider warming pattern of increasingly freaky weather predicted by climatologists as the world gets warmer.
Professor Tim Flannery, Australia's most distinguished scientist and a leading expert on climate change said: "Americans might feel they're suffering from a whole lot of severe weather at the moment, but look globally and you see exactly the same thing around the world. Anywhere with a Mediterranean climate, such as Greece or Australia or California, is suffering extreme wildfires. Now, why is that happening? The climate is slowly shifting, so that the desert regions adjacent to those Mediterranean areas are starting to expand."
He's not alone. The prestigious journal Science recently published the results of a long study into wildfires – and they found that man-made global warming is driving their new ferocity. Professor Thomas Swetnam of the University of Arizona concluded: "Lots of people think climate change and the ecological responses are 50 to 100 years away. But it's not 50 to 100 years away – it's happening now in forest ecosystems through fire."
The fires will speed up as global warming speeds up. If we hit three degrees centigrade of warming, most models predict the Amazon rainforest itself will dry out and burn up. The most important carbon skink on earth will turn to ash – ensuring the world warms even more.
So it's a red herring to suggest that an individual arsonist was The Cause of the California fires, the latest right-wing talking point. Even if a malicious person did strike – and it's possible – the fire only spread so far and so fast because the climate is unusually dry. The hefty act of arson is our carbon-spewing behaviour every day, altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere in a way that guarantees more warming and more wildfires.
In a Washington DC that talks obsessively about national security, why is this issue – threatening the lives of US citizens, and people across the world – still lingering at the bottom of the to-do list? Look at the list of donations to the campaign of Rudi Giuliani, the man most likely to be the next president. All the major oil and gas companies have transferred their political donations from the Bush administration to "America's mayor", lavishing half a billion dollars on him this year alone.
Giuliani in return promises another four years of the burning Bush approach, dismissing energy conservation as "not very effective" and cheerleading for drilling out the oil beneath the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Serving the fossil fuel industry isn't new for Giuliani. In 2005, he took a fat $10m (£5m) job at Bracewell & Patterson, a lobbying firm that is described by the National Resources Defence Council as "the most well-known face of aggressive energy- industry lobbying in America".
But under the current US system, almost every politician is forced to go grovelling to massive oil and gas corporations for campaign donations – so it's not surprising that they all end up tangoing to their tune, even at the expense of New Orleans and California. Giuliani is merely the extreme end of a narrow spectrum. Even Al Gore had to beg for cash from Exxon-Mobil and Chevron in order to run for president, and he neutered his environmentalism accordingly. It's only now Gore doesn't have to scrape for cash that he has been able to speak the truth.
This pattern is repeated across US politics: take away the need for oil cash, and politicians start dealing with global warming seriously. Five years ago, both Maine and Arizona introduced clean state funding for political parties. Almost overnight, the states switched from near- denial on global warming to agreeing to abide by the Kyoto Protocol. As the State Assembly Member Loni Hancock says, "Clean money [is] the reform that makes all other reforms possible."
Dirty money in US politics is leading to dirty smoke-streaked skies across California. It is only when the American people start to pay for their own political campaigns – instead of outsourcing the job to Exxon and friends – that we can begin to deal with global warming. They don't have time to dawdle: the list of super-charged "natural" disasters is growing every week – and the next one to hit could be Hurricane Giuliani.Reuse content