Two weeks ago, we saw the beginnings of what appeared to be a seismic shift. After decades of warnings by environmentalists, the scientific and political establishments of most countries had finally cottoned on. Climate change is happening, and it is big. So they descended on The Hague for a conference billed as a last-ditch effort to combat global warming. Two weeks passed, during which time the issue was splashed across the pages of most newspapers, and it actually seemed as though the deal would be done. And then, thank God, it all collapsed.
Last year, the 2,000 UN-appointed scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that their alarming predictions of four years earlier were "wildly optimistic". Unless something is done quickly, they said, we can expect anything up to a 6oC rise in average global temperatures by the end of the current century. Bearing in mind that a mere half-metre rise in sea levels would submerge countries such as Holland, there is no telling whether modern civilisation would even survive such pressures. Mankind has "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the past 50 years", they reported, and unless we achieved cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 60 per cent below 1990 levels, the problem could, quite literally, spiral out of control.
Since the beginning of the industrial era, global average temperatures have risen by 0.7oC, and even such a minor change has led, it seems, to catastrophes all over the world. Take Orissa, for instance, where a supercyclone last year killed 10,000 people and affected 12 million households. Or take Bangladesh, China, Mozambique, Thailand, Australia and even Britain, where floods - some record-breaking - have destroyed the livelihoods of millions. Or Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Ethiopia, each of which has suffered severe drought over the past two years.
The analysis of the IPCC scientists was echoed by numerous other scientific bodies, and even by No 10 and the White House. Suddenly, following years of denial and bogus corporate science, the Establishment, or at least its bulk, was on side and ready to act. Which is why we might have been forgiven for assuming that our leaders had entered into negotiations at The Hague with the kind of zeal that alone can divert crises of such a nature. Sadly not. From the start, the politicians had collectively decided on targets that are, by their own admission, measly: a global average 5.2 per cent reduction in emissions over the next 12 years - more than ten times less than we need just to stabilise the problem at its current level.
In other words, even if The Hague had been a success, we would still be heading towards a crisis. As for the United States, it entered the negotiations with the single aim of unhooking itself from any real commitments. It set about exploiting loopholes which would have ensured that, while appearing to comply, it would have, in fact, increased its emissions through unrestricted use of so-called "flexible mechanisms" - including buying the pollution rights of other nations with lower emissions, earning carbon credits by expanding (among other things) its nuclear industry, and offsetting emissions against so-called carbon sinks.
Thankfully, European countries rejected the US position. From the beginning, they proposed that the loopholes be restricted, and that countries should achieve at least half their targets through actual domestic changes. But, except for a few minor concessions, the US held tight. And here is where the battle began, which ended with our own John Prescott tumbling out of the meeting room in fury. Prescott had taken on the unenviable task of facilitating an agreement between the US and its allies and the European nations. To that end, he turned to the steady shoulders of compromise. The Europeans rejected it. He cracked.
The effect was a non-agreement. This was, without any doubt, disappointing; but it was also for the best. Because, had a compromise deal been agreed, the result would have been disastrous. The politicians would have closed the climate chapter for a decade, deluding the public that something was being done, while the world's small island states, among many other places, would have been condemned to a slow and painful death. As is often the case, we are better off with a clean slate than a weak precedent.
The question now is what to do next. We know that without the US, which is responsible for nearly a quarter of all emissions (but with only 5 per cent of the world's population), even a good deal would be insufficient. But we also know that the country's participation in any future summit will have the effect of watering down an already weak proposal; for, whether it is Al Gore or George Bush in the White House, the US love affair with excess and big business is not about to end.
The answer must surely be that more forward-looking nations forge ahead with their own agreement - one that will at least enable the ball to begin rolling. If this shuts out the US, it may be the only way to shame its people into acting. A recent opinion poll suggests that they are already waking up. More than 50 per cent of those questioned said they put the global environment before economics; 25 per cent said they had made financial gifts to an environmental group in the past 12 months. And last month, more than three million people voted for the anti-corporate candidate Ralph Nader in the presidential election.
At the end of the day, however, the only real, long-term "solution" to the climate crisis has been overlooked by all our leaders. Without adapting our economics, we will simply be greening individual leaves on a dying tree. Our government, in line with its predecessors, is wedded to the belief that increased global trade is automatically a good thing. Thus, it has supported endless subsidies, both direct and indirect, that can benefit only the big corporations producing for long-distance export: EU requirements, for instance, that force this country to import basic goods such as milk. Not only has this undermined local economies, it has also led to a situation where each mouthful of ordinary food arrives courtesy of gallons of fuel. We are fast moving towards the wholly unsustainable situation that already exists in the US, where the average plate of food has travelled more than 1,000 miles. This is not clever economics, nor is it good practice.
The long-term solution to the climate crisis is to shift direction from unnecessary dependence on the global economy towards dependence on the local. It requires creating an infrastructure that is free from dependence on fossil fuels. Such a shift, with political will, could be painless. Already, wind power is competitive, and is attracting the attention of shrewd investors.
Astoundingly, there are still people who claim that climate change is a myth - and that, even if it is not, the costs involved in change are prohibitive. This is absurd. Think of the cost implications of not taking action: natural disasters in the 1990s cost the global economy $480bn, nearly ten times more than in the 1960s.
But, in any case, the US has already pledged to lavish hundreds of billions of taxpayers' dollars on the Star Wars missile defence system, designed to protect the country from an attack by a rogue nuclear state, the likelihood of which is, let's say, slim. Wouldn't that same sum be better spent defending ourselves from catastrophic climate change, the likelihood of which is far greater? This is certainly the view of the 2,000 UN-appointed scientists of the IPCC, a body of opinion we would be frivolous to ignore.
There is no downside to acting to prevent climate change. Cleaner air, decentralised and cheaper energy, less dependence on the Middle East - all these will be additional benefits. But if we choose to take no action, and we are right about the problem, the downside is quite simply extinction. In this context, there is no contest.
Only fools would take such a gamble.
Zac Goldsmith is the editor of the Ecologist (www.theecologist.org)