John Prescott sparked controversy yesterday by linking America's refusal to tackle climate change to the devastation of the New Orleans hurricane.
The Deputy Prime Minister caused potential embarrassment for Britain by drawing a parallel between the US city destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and island states that scientists believe are under threat of being swamped.
In a speech in Berlin, he also criticized the US for failing to sign the Kyoto protocol on climate change, which is aimed at slowing global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
A debate has raged in the US over whether global warming is responsible for the recent series of storms. So far this year there have been 15 named storms, significantly more than average.
President George Bush says he does not believe that human activity causes global warming, but some experts say excessive carbon emissions lead to higher sea temperatures and stronger storms.
With the death toll from Katrina expected to be in the thousands, however, comments like these from a senior politician will be seen by some as insensitive.
A spokesman for Prescott said Downing Street had seen the speech beforehand, but the Prime Minister's office later refused to comment.
Tony Blair will meet Bush in New York this week at the United Nations world summit, at which global warming will be a key issue. A White House spokesman said the two leaders' warm relationship would not be affected by the comments.
The spokesman also dismissed the suggestion of a link between Kyoto and Katrina. James Connaughton, the chief White House environmental aide, said Prescott was careful in his choice of words.
'Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster,' said Connaughton. 'Even had we ratified and implemented the provisions of Kyoto, this would not have stopped Katrina. We've had hurricanes for centuries.
'I have a high regard for John Prescott and it has been reinforced by the fact that he was careful in what he said on this issue.'
In his speech, Prescott stressed his compassion for the US hurricane victims, but said Bush's administration was wrong not to join Britain and many other leading industrial nations in supporting Kyoto.
He told the international congress of the Council for European Urbanism: 'As a European negotiator at the Kyoto climate change convention, I was fully aware that climate change is changing weather patterns and raising sea levels.
'The horrific flood of New Orleans brings home to us the concern of leaders of countries like the Maldives, whose nations are at risk of disappearing completely. There has been resistance by the US government to Kyoto - which I believe is wrong.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005