What will historians say about the year 2000? They will see only one question of consequence: this year global warming became an incontrovertible fact, visible to all citizens and yet the west did nothing. The Hague summit collapsed while the minimalist Kyoto protocols remained unsigned by the world's greatest carbon dioxide emitter which elected (or rather, selected) a new president not only born and bred on oil, but who was set upon the US throne by oilmen's money.
Savage fires, the worst ever, raged unchecked across drought-ridden US landscapes last summer, West Nile fever broke out in Boston. The ice cap was found full of water and holes, polar bears started to die and persistent floods swept across Britain. Yet on neither side of the Atlantic did green issues register more than a small blip on political screens. Green parties across Europe fell into decline. The British prime minister did make his first ever green speech under some duress saying: "The environmental challenge continues to grow and become more urgent."
But not urgent enough, neither to the people nor to their governments. Historians will compare us to Noah's antediluvian citizenry. The geraniums in my window boxes, even the lobelia, still bloom luxuriantly on Christmas day while squirrels who should be asleep eat from the bird table, as it rains and rains. Yet still the strange weather has not moved from nature notes to mainstream politics.
After Kyoto there was a concerted corporate denial of global warming. The biggest oil companies - Exxon Mobil, the giant of them all - spent large sums assembling "scientists" to attest that it was all nonsense. But in the three years since, the climate has changed yet faster than predicted. The Met Office's advisers have just revised their predictions upwards by two degrees, expecting temperatures to rise by six degrees this century. Water levels will rise by seven metres, wiping out every major coastal city in the world.
This is no unimaginable futuristic abstraction: children now born will see all this come to pass. A six- degree increase produces a heat human beings have never known: the last time it was that hot, dinosaurs roamed. There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than there has been for 20m years. Six of the 10 hottest years have been in the 1990s, the other four in the late 1980s. There has never been a climate change so sharp or fast, with no time for adaptation.
So how, British historians will ask, did this play in the election of 2001? Hardly at all, beyond a Tory pledge to abolish the new climate change levy on industry, the government's only creative contribution to global warming. Why the lack of alarm and political salience? Parties who dare not speak of the value of taxation dare suggest no sacrifices, not even for survival. We may have reached the limits of democracy.
But if the ballot box can't save us, perhaps the market can. Global insurers are beginning to worry. They will be bankrupt sooner rather than later by predicted calamities in fire, flood and storm. A 10% increase in average windspeed yields 150% more damage. If insurers go bust, so do pension funds and the whole stock market. Recent British floods showed how quickly property becomes uninsurable. How long before that is true of New York, London and all the coastal cities where global capitalism resides? The economic cost of natural disaster is rising by 12% a year: vulnerable Florida alone has a trillion dollars of insured assets, enough to bring everything crashing down.
The commercial carrot works as well as the stick. The market is at last waking up to the profits in renewable energy. German, Dutch and even the US governments are investing in the race to bring down the costs of wind and solar power. Britain is barely a player: BP has moved its solar factories to Europe where there are grants, while the UK is unlikely to hit its 2010 target of 10% renewable energy. Instead our government just invested £1bn in North Sea oil exploration, when £200m could make UK solar power a winner. Labour has commissioned just 100 solar roofs, compared to the German government's 100,000 and a US government plan for one million.
A solar roof costs five times more to install than burning fossil fuels, because of the high cost of production. But the price is about to tumble in Germany as volume reduces unit price: the UK will end up importing panels for lack of government action. A trial solar roof on a terrace house in Richmond now feeds surplus electricity into the national grid: no more functionless roofs should ever be built from now on. The DTI dithers instead of kick-starting a huge new manufacturing industry, employing thousands. Architects are conservatively slow to use solar cladding that costs no more than most other cladding for office buildings, with free energy for ever.
With less government inertia there are attractive solutions to global warming that don't have to mean wearing the hair shirts that have made the green movement flounder as a political force. Economists, including the Economist, predict renewable energy is about to become the next revolution. Bigger than mobile phones, bigger than computer manufacture. But if Labour doesn't move fast, foreign markets will cash in while we import from them. If Labour dare not talk the politics of global warming, at least they could get the economics right.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000