Now, more than ever, it is imperative to confront America over climate change

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The Independent Online

It is a quite remarkable irony that the scientific data giving the world what may be its most ominous warning yet about the onset of climate change should be coming from the country which produces the largest amount of greenhouse gases, yet whose present government barely acknowledges that there is a problem.

It is a quite remarkable irony that the scientific data giving the world what may be its most ominous warning yet about the onset of climate change should be coming from the country which produces the largest amount of greenhouse gases, yet whose present government barely acknowledges that there is a problem.

As reported on the front page of this newspaper yesterday, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO 2), the principal greenhouse gas, have made a sudden leap which cannot be adequately explained by terrestrial emissions from factories and motor vehicles. This may be merely an anomalous rise, but on the other hand it may signify much more than that, and mark the beginning of a "feedback" effect, in which the earth's forests and oceans start to lose their ability to absorb large amounts of carbon, and thus remove it from the atmosphere. Should this prove true, the timetable for the advent of climate change and its catastrophic consequences could be very much shorter than anyone at present imagines.

The data that enables the world to perceive this danger are the continuous readings of atmospheric CO 2 levels made from the US observatory on the top Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawaii, since 1958. They are processed by two prestigious centres of scientific excellence: the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California at San Diego, and the Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is an entirely praiseworthy piece of entirely American science: no other country has done anything like it for anything like as long. It is the world's clearest picture of the greenhouse gas threat, and it is the very length of the data time-series which allows the present anomaly in the figures to stand out so clearly.

So how on earth, we find ourselves asking, can the United States simultaneously lead the world in the science of climate change, in the warnings of its dangers, and in the obstruction of efforts to find a solution to it? Yet merely to pose the question is to realise at once just how far George Bush and his cabal have turned their backs on reality in withdrawing the US from the Kyoto protocol and the international consensus on the need to take decisive action to deal with global warming.

America is, of course, not the only guilty party. India and China have massively increased emissions in recent years as their economies have expanded. But, as the world's pre-eminent political and industrial power, the US has a duty to take a lead. It is a duty that President Bush has scorned.

Never mind Iraq. History will judge Mr Bush very harshly over climate change, especially if he is re-elected next month and continues his obstruction for another four years. Tony Blair, to his great credit, fully recognises the climate danger, and has promised to make it, with the condition of Africa, one of the twin themes of Britain's forthcoming presidency of the G8. If he is to make any progress, he will sooner or later have to confront head-on the Bush administration's state of denial over global warming, and to call it publicly what it is, special relationship or no special relationship.

Let yesterday's warning serve as a spur to him. We are comfortable, so far, with our predictions of climate change, this gentle process which we think will gradually unroll over the next century, allowing us to adapt to it. Climate feedbacks will end all that. Global warming can adapt a "runaway" character, proceeding with terrifying speed: we know from the atmospheric records preserved in ice cores that this has happened in the past.

Let Mr Blair's resolve be stiffened, in his dealings with Mr Bush over climate change, by the knowledge that, bad though the predictions - God knows - already are, it is what cannot be predicted that may be turn out to be the worst of all.

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