America - Andrew Stephen feels the rising heat

Arizona burns while, in Alaska, the roads sag and the forests die. Dramatic climate change is hittin

I remember once flying into Novosibirsk, into the heart of Siberia, and being amazed at the monumental mosquitoes that immediately came out to greet me. Mosquitoes in Siberia? Then again, I've always been convinced that mosquitoes make a beeline for me wherever I am in the world: in America, I believe, they have a radio network and tell each other excitedly: "That English guy's in town. Let's go."

But I digress. The point is that there is now nowhere to escape the curse of mosquitoes in this, a country of nearly all climates. Barrow, the northernmost settlement in the United States - in the farthest reaches of Alaska, and 16 degrees north of Novosibirsk - is currently experiencing its first ever plague of mosquitoes. Not far away, forest fires have been burning since the middle of May, according to a shock report on Alaska's ecology in the New York Times.

Permafrost is no longer permanent; the resultant flooding is eroding away towns. A four-million-acre spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula is being destroyed by spruce-eating beetles that are reproducing as never before - the biggest loss of trees to insects ever recorded in the US. My friend Ted Stevens, the senior senator from Alaska, says that Alaska is being more badly hit by global warming than anywhere else in the world; "sagging roads, crumbling villages, dead forests, catastrophic fires and disruption of marine wildlife" are the result.

In case we were in any doubt as to what is happening in this far north-western part of the US, the Bush administration's own Environmental Protection Agency says in a draft report: "There can no longer be any doubt that major changes in the climate have occurred in recent decades in the region, with visible and measurable consequences." The most astonishing statistic of all is that Alaska, with 40 per cent of the nation's surface water and 63 per cent of its wetlands, has experienced a rise in temperature of seven degrees Fahrenheit in the past three decades. Academics expect a further 18-degree rise by the end of this century. Given that most increases in climate warming are measured in fractions of a degree, what is happening to Alaska is truly staggering.

President Bush is, yes, concerned about all this strange climate stuff. He flew in to Arizona last Tuesday, where he saw fires that had so far consumed about 47,000 square miles. More than 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes; the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and two counties, Navajo and Apache, have been badly hit. Declaring the area a federal emergency site, Bush told Arizonans: "A lot of people in our country are pulling for you."

But hardly in his own administration. When the Environmental Protection Agency put out that report, the White House itself was dismissive and reiterated its position: global warming does not exist - but even if it does, measures to deal with it must be voluntary. We must drive our gas-guzzling SUVs less, that sort of thing. The biggest producer of crude oil in the US is Dubbya's state, Texas - Alaska comes next - and, according to the EPA, the burning of refined products from crude oil is the greatest single contributor to rising temperatures. But this, lest we forget, is the oilman's administration; under Bush's laissez-faire policies, greenhouse emission levels will actually increase over the next decade.

Indeed, the very lifeblood symbolising the shoulder-shrugging inertia in Washington could itself be in jeopardy. The 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries a million barrels of petroleum per day to the continental US, and accounts for 17 per cent of the nation's oil production, is in danger because - with most of the pipeline above ground - the underlying surface has become unstable with the increasing heat. "We've had so many strange events, things are so different than they used to be, that I think most Alaskans now believe something profound is going on," says Dr Glenn Juday, a climate expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "We're experiencing indisputable climate warning." An Alaskan native, Caleb Dungowigi, told a Senate committee: "To us living on the Arctic coastline, sea ice is our lifeline. The long-term trend is very scary."

As firefighters from Alaska to Arizona and Colorado, fighting very different environmental battles, will doubtless confirm. So far, 2.2 million acres of land in America have burned this year. And yes, I know that wildfires can be beneficial ecologically - they help some types of eucalyptus tree to multiply, for example - but we all know in our bones that we are not just experiencing a climatic swing.

Flames have shot 500ft high in Arizona, walls of flame 100ft long and 20 blocks wide have engulfed the state. In the words of Dr Juday, something profound is happening: and Dubbya is complacently fiddling while his country burns.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the affair?