Our leaders are steering us into the abyss

That anyone can still deny planetary warming when faced with such conditions is a tribute to human i

With a long career in politics already behind him, it must take a lot to shock Al Gore. But even this seasoned campaigner was left open-mouthed at the government of Canada's latest policy initiative on global warming. What Gore found especially "shocking", the former US vice-president told a TV interviewer, was the Conservative government's plan to meet its Kyoto targets - not now, but in 2025, 13 years after the treaty expires in 2012. In the meantime, the country will pursue a "greenhouse gas intensity" strategy copied from the Bush administration, where emissions are supposed to reduce per unit of production, but can continue to grow overall as the economy expands. No wonder Gore angrily told an audience in Toronto on 28 April that the plan was "a complete and total fraud . . . designed to mislead the Canadian people".

While no one will look to Canada for international leadership on climate change, neither could they turn to Australia. At the same time as it struggles to cope with a drought of unpreced ented severity, John Howard's government con tinues to steer the country confidently towards the abyss. Australia is now expected to overshoot its own (unsigned) Kyoto target - to stabilise emissions at 108 per cent of 1990 levels by 2012 - by 2010. According to the Sydney-based Climate Institute, in the past three years alone Australian energy emissions have risen by the equivalent of more than five million new cars on the country's roads. Even while the earth bakes behind dried-up dams and farmers go bankrupt as their land turns to dust, Howard declares his determination to protect his sponsors in the coal industry - despite the fact that most of the emissions increase comes from the burning of coal in power stations. Thus, because of the extreme effects of global warming on rainfall, Australia is being forced to choose between coal and agriculture. Howard has chosen coal.

So who else can we look to for leadership? Not the US or Japan, whose heads of government met last week at Camp David. The headline issued by Reuters after the meeting said it all: "US and Japan commit to ease global warming, no targets". Reuters didn't have much to report, because the reality was that neither country committed to anything at all.

So too the EU, where rhetoric on climate change has certainly moved up a notch in recent months. But, as so often, rhetoric does not match reality. An April report from the Bankwatch environmental network reveals that of the European Investment Bank's ?112bn handed out in loans over the past decade, more than half has gone to roads and air transport. The expected increase in CO2 emissions from EIB-funded airport expansion alone equals the entire national emissions of New Zealand, Switzerland or Norway. And even while agreeing a target for an EU-wide 20 per cent emissions cut (on 1990 levels) by 2020, European negotiators have just signed an "open skies" deal with the US that will mean more flights across the Atlantic, and even cheaper fares. One step forward, two steps back.

The impacts of climate warming are also being felt in Europe. In Italy, water levels in the River Po and Lake Garda (the country's largest) have never been lower, and the country's environment minister has warned of a potential "state of emergency" if rain does not come before the summer. Drought is also gripping France, Germany and southern parts of the UK, where there has now been no substantial rain for six weeks.

Along with the drought has come heat. In Eng land, this April was the hottest ever re corded, with countrywide temperatures more than three degrees higher than the long-term average. Records just keep tumbling: last July was the hottest month ever, while 2003 saw the highest daily temperature ever when the mercury reached 38.5C on 10 August, passing 100F for the first time in history. The July heatwave of 2006 saw a near-return to those record-breaking temperatures, and some analysts are predicting that this summer could see temperatures crossing the 40C threshold (104F).

That anyone can still deny planetary warming when faced with such conditions is a tribute to human ingenuity. If only this triumph of imagination had been put to better use - in helping to design an economy that did not eradicate its own life-support mechanisms - we might be facing a future in which temperatures might soon level out. Instead, the only way is up. I'm off to plant an orange tree in our backyard, and will keep you posted on its progress.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.