It is a political timebomb left by Bill Clinton for any Republican successor and it is just about to go off. One week ago, President George Bush repudiated the Kyoto agreement, throwing international efforts to slow down global warming into turmoil.
Next week a 150 page, lavishly illustrated report entitled Climate Change Impact on the United States, which was commissioned by the Clinton Administration, will be published by Cambridge University Press.
Despite President Bush's repudiation of the treaty that would force industry to reduce the emissions that lead to global warming, the government is committed to distributing the report widely. Copies have already been run off specially for every member of Congress, and of course for the White House.
The warnings are there on almost every page. Cities will suffer from water shortages and stifling summers; mountain resorts which rely on skiing will see the snows retreat upwards by as much 1,000ft (300m) from their present base at 3,000ft. Tropical diseases, such as dengue, will spread in southern coastal areas as the sea rises and inundates wetlands to create the ideal breeding ground for the insects that carry it.
Because the markets don't have an efficient way to value what the seas, the rivers, the mountains and the forests actually contribute, they effectively ignore them. But you do that at your peril."
The weather, too, will alter: hurricanes will sweep in more often over the Florida coast (which will also see storm surges overwhelm its defences), flash floods, caused by melted glaciers, will become more prevalent and soil in some areas will become drier, putting agriculture under serious strain.
There are a few points of hope. In the short term, agriculture and forestry will benefit from increased rain and warmer winters, perhaps making it possible to grow two crops each year, while forests including valuable hardwoods could expand. Warmer winters should mean fewer deaths from cold.
But overall it is not a message that Mr Bush would want to hear. Dr Anthony Janetos, who has spent the past three years co-chairing the group of experts who produced the report, is sure the hard work of the scientists is being largely disregarded. "I'm sure that they [Congress and the White House] haven't read the report," he said. "The problem is that the release of the final documents which became this report happened when the election was in full spring. It didn't climb to the top of the political reading list."
Dr Janetos is the senior vice-president at the World Resources Institute, an independent policy research organ- isation based in Washington. An ecologist by training, he is frustrated by the impossibility of getting the climate change message through to US politicians especially when the wider public view it as an important, non-political issue.
"I have gone around the country over the past three years consulting people and giving presentations on our findings and talking to people," he said. "What has come across very clearly from that is that people aren't interested in the political rhetoric about climate change and what action is needed.
"Outside Washington, people want to know what is going to happen, and what to do about it. My experience is that they want to take it seriously."
While it is possible that Dr Janetos only meets people who are already persuaded about climate change, rather than the sceptics, the latter seem an increasingly embattled group, even within America.
Yesterday, Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the body of about 700 scientists who examine climate change dismissed any suggestion that there was a significant split among scientists over whether climate change is occurring, and whether humans are causing it. He said: "It's not even 80-20 or 90-10 [in percentage terms]. I personally believe it's something like 98-2 or 99-1.
"There's disagreement over specific areas ... but on a broad level it's well over 90 per cent," he said after a meeting of IPCC experts in Kenya. Perhaps only a few scientists are not convinced by the need to arrest man's involvement in climate change, but it only takes one US president to stall proceedings.
Yet the overview to the IPCC report does not suggest a positive outcome. It sounds particular warnings over droughts and the potential for diseases to be spread more easily. It says: "Existing stresses in urban areas include crime, traffic congestion, compromised air and water quality, and disruptions of personal and business life due to decaying infrastructure. Climate change is likely to amplify some of those stresses." Life for most Americans will get less comfortable because of climate change.
But what lies beyond the scope of the report is an examination of how people will react to those stresses and also how effective any countermeasures might be. Given the present occupants of the White House, that is unlikely to be commissioned in the short term. Nor will the contribution that the natural world already makes to people's comfort be recognised, said Dr Janetos.
"People don't recognise that if forest ecosystems and mountain ecosystems are affected, it isn't just some abstract effect," he said. "The forests provide the wood for your house. They supply clean water. We don't pay directly for what they provide, so people effectively get a free ride from the ecosystems' services. But when you put those systems in peril, then there are costs to the quality of life."
President Bush said that he would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it would impose too great a cost on the US economy, and so on American citizens. But Dr Janetos thinks that Mr Bush's calculation leaves out one essential fact the cost of having a working ecosystem.
Dr Janetos said: "Because the markets don't have an efficient way to value what the seas, the rivers, the mountains and the forests actually contribute, they effectively ignore them. But you do that at your peril."
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.