The breakdown of the meeting on climate change in the Hague and the continuing uncertainty surrounding the American presidency mark a new and dangerous point in international affairs. The world's major states cannot agree on policies to deal with global warming. The United States faces years of indecisive government, with Washington paralysed by score-settling and legislative gridlock. Against this background, there can be no concerted action to cope with the environmental crisis. The world is set on a course of wild globalisation.
In itself, the collapse of the climate talks two weeks ago in the Hague is not particularly significant. The meeting was an attempt to ratify the 1997 Kyoto convention on reducing greenhouse gases. Its failure has been widely put at the door of the Americans, but the Europeans were probably equally to blame in not following up concessions offered by the American delegation in the later stages of the talks.
Whoever was most at fault, it is vital to understand that the Kyoto protocol is itself a wholly inadequate response to the hazards facing the global environment. The protocol aimed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to a few percentage points beneath their levels a decade ago. But even if that goal could be achieved, it would not halt climate change. The consensus among scientists is that global warming is already irreversible. According to some estimates, levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would double even if every country in the world cut its emissions below 1990 levels.
In fact, there is not the remotest prospect of this happening. It is not just that imposing the necessary fiscal measures is politically impossible in the US, and - as has been evident since the fuel protests in September - far from easy in Europe. It is that climate change and industrialisation in developing countries are indissolubly linked. China and India account for more greenhouse gases than the whole of Europe. The impact of industrial development in such developing countries on global warming is rising steeply. Yet, no doubt rightly, developing countries are not covered by the Kyoto protocol. It is grossly inequitable to demand that poor countries should impose controls on their industries which many of the richest countries flout daily. Why should the path of development that the world's richest countries adopted - at whatever cost to the environment - be closed to its poorest?
Insofar as it is man-made, global warming flows inexorably from worldwide industrialisation. It is only in countries where industrial production has largely collapsed (as it has in Russia) that greenhouse gas emissions have fallen substantially. None of the world's poor countries can afford to curb industrial development. Despite valiant efforts at family planning, most of them have populations that are growing rapidly. They have no choice but to go all-out for economic growth. Yet, in a cruel paradox, it is the world's poorest countries that stand to suffer most from climate change. Some, such as Bangladesh and Samoa, face being flooded while others, such as Nigeria, face being ravaged by desert. In a worst-case scenario that some scientists are taking seriously, billions of people in developing countries will face a more inhospitable environment before the 21st century is over.
Against this background, the collapse of the climate talks is a warning. The level of international cooperation that is required to make even a dent in the world's worsening environmental problems is going to be increasingly difficult to achieve. Even if, as Michael Meacher has urged, the Kyoto process is restarted, it will be done in daunting circumstances. Whatever the outcome of the legal charades that are being played out in Washington, the incoming American president is unlikely to be able to persuade Congress to accept environmental measures of the kind that the American delegation seemed ready to contemplate in the Hague. The window of opportunity that may have existed a couple of weeks ago has closed.
It seems almost inevitable that the next American administration will be more inward looking, and more hamstrung by Congress, than that led by Mr Clinton. If so, the future is bleak. To think that the rest of the world can go ahead and solve its environmental problems without the Americans is mere folly. It is not only that the US has itself an enormous impact on the global environment. The whole structure of global governance - the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and so on - is an American construction. Without active American involvement, nothing can be done to reform it. The risk is that it will become weak and irrelevant, as - led by the US - more and more countries try to solve their problems unilaterally.
Some environmentalists welcome this outcome. And it is true that it means the end of the Washington consensus (the belief that the best framework for globalisation is a worldwide free market). That belief has led to repeated disasters, as countries with differing needs and circumstances have been forced into implementing rigid and ineffective free market policies. But, contrary to the fond hopes of some environmentalists, the break-up of the flawed Washington consensus does not mean that a wiser approach to global development is on the horizon. It means that we are in for an anarchic free-for-all, in which globalisation will go on unchecked.
The dangers of wild globalisation are legion. If world markets become more turbulent, pressures for protectionism may be irresistible, particularly in the US. Most worryingly, wars may be fought over shrinking resources such as oil and even, in some regions, water. With the re-emergence of such Malthusian conflicts, international cooperation may be tested to destruction. The lesson of the Hague, and of political paralysis in the US, is that it is unwise to expect too much of our political leaders. In a time of wild globalisation, our best hope may be that new technologies will be developed which enable technical fixes to be found for environmental problems that have proved to be politically insoluble.
John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000