It is a measure of how far climate change has slipped down the public agenda that such scant attention has been paid to this week's key meeting on global warming. The past few days' headlines suggest that there is little interest in the outcome of the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Yet the result of COP 18 – which concludes tomorrow night in Doha – will matter more in the long run than media regulation, or the Chancellor's economic plans, or the future heir to the throne. For while public perception of the threat from global warming has diminished, it remains the greatest menace human civilisation has ever faced.
The decrease in apprehension over climate change has two principal causes. One is the recession, which is happening now and concerns us immediately, while the risk of environmental catastrophe seems to be the future (although not, perhaps, as far away as many think). The other explanation is that the phenomenon of global warming itself, measured solely by the annual increase in global air temperatures, appears to have paused over the past decade. Although the world is certainly not getting any cooler – 2012 is set to be the ninth warmest year on record – it is not, to the ordinary person, getting tangibly hotter year on year, as it was in the 1980s and 1990s.
Scientists have put forward several reasons for this "plateau" in warming. Recent suggestions include the possibility that much of the extra warmth is being absorbed by the deep ocean, or that the airborne layer of sulphur particles produced by the colossal amounts of coal being burned in China is acting as a cooling shield to the heat of the Sun.
Whatever the cause, however, one thing is crystal clear: the amount of greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere from human activities continues to soar. Unless some of the basic laws of physics are suddenly reversed, the result can only be a destabilising rise in the temperature of the atmosphere. And it will occur sooner rather than later. Indeed, even if rises in air temperature appear to have paused, there are already ominous signs of a significantly warming world. One need look no further than this summer's record melt-back of the Arctic ice, for example.
The meeting in the Qatari capital could hardly be more important, therefore. But it is far from easy. The central challenge is to lay down the rules for a comprehensive new treaty – to be signed in 2015 and come into force in 2020 – that will impose, for the first time ever, legally binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions on all the countries of the world. It also needs to include the three biggest carbon emitters – China, India and the US – that together account for 48 per cent of all CO2 emissions but have never been so bound before.
Given that the UN conferences involve some 194 nations, all of them with different domestic agendas, it is, perhaps, a miracle that anything is ever agreed at all. Sometimes, as in Copenhagen in 2009, disagreement flourishes. But although the meeting concluding late tomorrow night is no instant fix, the groundwork for a new treaty that is being so painstakingly negotiated is no less essential for all that. Equally, although mass bargaining may not produce the best possible agreement, it is the only tool available to deal with the threat of climate change. COP 18 is technical, complicated and easy to overlook; but it is absolutely vital that the talks succeed.