The collapse of the talks on global warming is not the end of the world

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It may seem perverse to hail the collapse of the climate-change talks in The Hague as a great step forward for humankind, but some of the more apocalyptic wails of despair from the environmentalists should be discounted.

It may seem perverse to hail the collapse of the climate-change talks in The Hague as a great step forward for humankind, but some of the more apocalyptic wails of despair from the environmentalists should be discounted.

The fundamental problem with the response to global warming is that the Americans simply do not see it the same way as we Europeans, living as we do in our old, small countries. The United States was built on cheap energy, on environmental despoliation on a grand scale, and yet still has such huge and beautiful wild spaces that the idea of the planet as a crowded and fragile ecosystem has not yet taken firm hold.

The issue at The Hague, therefore, was always going to be that of persuading the US, where one-twentieth of the world's population burns a quarter of its fossil fuels, to commit itself to the targets agreed at Kyoto three years ago. Not that the US alone bears responsibility. The poor countries of the world use twice as much oil per unit of output as the rich countries. But they can only be persuaded to tax energy more heavily as their economies grow if the rich world does so first. The apparent willingness to compromise of the American delegation to The Hague was, therefore, a significant breakthrough.

Certainly, the French should be criticised for scuppering the deal on the grounds that half a loaf was worse than no loaf at all. Only a small part of the blame should attach itself to John Prescott, whose vainglory as the man who brokered the original deal at Kyoto blinded him to the realities of French domestic politics. The failure to do a deal this time is deeply regrettable and unnecessary, but it is not - if the phrase may be permitted - the end of the world.

What matters is that a deal is now possible. The anguished complaints from the greens, that the moment has been lost because President George W Bush would be less amenable next time round, miss the point. It is no use trying to bounce the US into a deal on the basis of what one group of negotiators might be prepared to concede at any given moment. If the US is to take action to meet the Kyoto targets, legislation will have to pass both Houses of Congress as well as the White House. And the grim truth is that most US legislators have not even got to what they would call first base, in that they simply do not accept the basic science of world climate change.

Changing American hearts and minds will take time, during which there will be failures and successes for green arguments - arguments which are nevertheless gradually making headway. That they have a long way to go even in supposedly "green" Europe is indicated by the likely reaction to the Fabian Society's modest and sensible proposals for higher taxes on domestic gas and electricity, and on aviation fuel, and for VAT on new homes.

Nor is the problem of climate change - serious though it is - the only threat to sustainable, civilised human life on the planet. The sheer weight of numbers of people threatens water supplies, the survival of other species, the ozone layer and no doubt many horrors as yet unknown.

Viewed from the other end of the telescope, what is remarkable is that transient politicians, operating within the short-term constraints of local electorates, have achieved so much in the face of such huge long-term problems. Now is not the time for pessimism of the will.

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