Tomorrow, when delegates from 166 nations gather in the Japanese city of Kyoto to determine the future of the earth's climate, could mark the start of another such baffling episode. Just as my teenage son is now wrestling with the events of 1914, so his children and grandchildren - living in a very different and less hospitable world - may ask with even more justification: "How could they have let it happen?"
The meeting is, in all sobriety, that important. If the world decides at Kyoto to take strong action against the pollution that causes global warming, climate change may well be kept at a manageable level. If they do not, the world's top scientists warn, our descendants will suffer the consequences for centuries, even millennia, to come.
To its great credit, the British government realises this. As we report on page four, three of its four top members - John Prescott, Robin Cook and Tony Blair himself - are investing unprecedented activity and prestige in trying to persuade their counterparts to agree serious cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. Painstakingly, travelling tens of thousands of air miles, Mr Prescott is beginning to put together the outlines of a possible deal. But, as he told me last week from Australia: "It's still going to be very difficult."
Back in London, Mr Cook looks out from the same offices as where, on 3 August 1914, Sir Edward Grey watched the lamplighters and spoke of "the lights going out all over Europe". Writing last week in Our Planet, the United Nations environment programme's magazine, he warned of "a global threat without parallel".
The science concurs. Over 2,500 of the world's leading experts on the official Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded last year that global warming is already happening. This year, another 1,500 top scientists, including 104 of the 138 living Nobel Prize winners, warned of its "potentially devastating consequences". To be sure, a relatively few scientists disagree: that is the nature of science. But in 28 years spent covering the environment, I have never known so much consensus on any single issue.
Perhaps even more to the point, Mr Prescott has constantly pointed out on his travels, the first signs of change are appearing. This year, the Meteorological Office said on Thursday, will be the hottest since records began. The five warmest years ever have all occurred in the 1990s, the 16 hottest since 1980.
Vast ice sheets off Antarctica are melting, causing atlases to be redrawn. Glaciers in the Alps are smaller than at any time in the last 5,000 years, while Alpine flowers are "climbing the mountains" by a foot a year to escape the rising heat. Tropical diseases are spreading into once cooler climes. Sea levels are rising and the cost of storm damage, which indicates a warmer, more turbulent climate, has multiplied six-fold so far this decade.
If Kyoto fails, the scientists say, the world will heat up faster than at any time in the past 10,000 years, changing the stable, benign climate which allowed civilisation to develop. Last week's Met Office report warned of 50 million people dying of starvation and 200 million being "seriously endangered" by floods. Whole island nations would disappear, the US mid- West, which helps feed 100 nations, is likely to be hit by drought, and the North Pole would melt.
And, instead of changing gradually, the climate may spring abrupt, nasty surprises. One such - revealed by the Independent on Sunday 18 months ago and endorsed this autumn by Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientist and last week by an authoritative scientific report - is that the Gulf Stream could weaken or stop, giving Britain the climate of Spitzbergen. Evidence from similar "flips" recorded deep in the Arctic ice-sheet suggest the process could take less than a decade.
Dr Robert Watson, chairman of the IPCC, warns that if the climate becomes hostile "it will take not years, not even decades, but centuries to reverse the damage". And once the sea level starts to rise "it cannot be slowed down in less than a few millennia".
Other in-built time-lags shield us from our actions. The present warming is a result of past pollution: the bill for our current splurge is yet to come in. So the fossil fuel industries - responsible for most of the emissions - claim that cause and effect have not been proven beyond doubt. That may be true, but wilfully misses the point.
Both people and governments prudently insure against risks: most defence spending is against the risk of war, rather than to fight a certain conflict. The industry lobbyists, flying to Kyoto today, would no doubt be furious if their planes had not been maintained because there was no absolute proof that they would crash. In climate change, not only are the risks of inaction enormous but so are the advantages of cutting pollution.
The fuel industries dispute this too, claiming that clean-up costs would cripple economies. A statement by 2,000 economists, including another clutch of Nobel Prize winners, exploded that argument this year. In fact, as the Government has realised, the reverse is true.
About one-third of the world's energy is wasted and could be saved - along with the carbon dioxide that burning it emits - using existing technologies at little or no net cost; another third could be saved with new ones. Families and industries would pay lower fuel bills and other air pollutants, such as those that exacerbate asthma, would fall sharply. And there would be more jobs, because, for example, insulating lofts employs many more people than running power stations.
Mr Cook says that combating global warming could "enhance economic growth" and that the countries who move first will benefit the most. Tony Blair is holding a seminar at Number 10 this week to make the same point to captains of industry. And that American study shows that the US could cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 10 per cent, while saving each family $530 (pounds 310) and creating some 800,000 jobs a year.
If all this only deepens the angry bafflement of the future student, so will the broken promises of the 1992 Earth Summit, when the rich countries promised to return carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Instead, they have already risen by 12 per cent.
The US now says it will only meet this target in around 2010. The EU, by contrast, wants a 15 per cent cut by that date, Britain says it will reduce by 20 per cent by then, whatever happens in Kyoto, while the small island states, facing obliteration from the rising seas, want the same reduction five years sooner. Even this pales against the 60 to 80 per cent cuts that scientists say are needed.
So the big problem is the US. No, on second thoughts, that's not fair: three-quarters of polled Americans want emission cuts, as does President Clinton. The big problem is the 100 Americans who happen to sit in the US Senate.
Earlier this year they unanimously resolved that they would not ratify any Kyoto treaty unless Third World countries also formerly agreed to restrain their pollution. But these are refusing to make any commitment until they see some movement from the US, which, with 4 per cent of the world's people contributes some 20 per cent of the emissions. And they can point out, as the prestigious World Resources Institute in Washington has reported, that developing countries have actually prevented more carbon dioxide emissions since the Earth Summit than industrialised ones have.
Mr Prescott is right to try to break the stalemate, by exploiting, in his phrase, a "window of credibility" between Kyoto and the time, two years hence, when the US congress would be asked to ratify an agreement. If he can get President Clinton to move first, in the clear expectation that developing countries will follow during this period, as credibility builds up, there is a good chance that Kyoto will agree to cut emissions by somewhere between three and 10 per cent by 2010.
That would require guts from Clinton, but it might well, literally, save the world, for it would show industry that the rules were changing, and business would probably react surprisingly fast. When a similar signal was given 10 years ago by what was initially a weak treaty to combat the pollution that attacks the ozone layer, industry moved remarkably quickly to switch production, because it saw that in future the big money would be in cleaning up.
Already BP and Shell are both rapidly expanding their solar energy divisions in anticipation of change. If Kyoto succeeds - and establishes follow- up meetings to tighten up the targets as the ozone treaty did - this will surely spread and accelerate.
And the student of the future will be taught that the beginning of December 1997 was the time that a world, long drunk on fossil fuels, suddenly began to sober up.Reuse content