A huge gap still exists between day-to-day policy-making and our avowed principles on climate change, says Joyce McMillan.
The first week of September: it’s traditionally the time of year when the world returns from its holidays and gets back to work, tackling the serious grown-up issues of life.
The difficulty is, though, that of late the serious grown-up issues confronting us have become so huge, and so frightening, that many of us - including those in power - apparently have difficulty in tackling them at all, or even in acknowledging them; hence, perhaps, one of the reasons why the “silly season” that once used to overtake the media in August now seems to be a year-round phenomenon.
This August, though, those issues began to appear on the western new agenda in a form so large, and so frightening, that they became impossible to ignore; and although some are still doing their best to frame the catastrophic Hurricane Harvey as just another occasional extreme weather event, it’s now hard to deny the fact that America’s Gulf Coast and its hinterland has been devastated by so-called “once in a century” flooding events twice within 12 years, with Hurricane Sandy, which flooded large parts of New York and New Jersey, also putting in a frightening appearance in 2012.
Nor are Texas and Louisiana the only places to have been devastated by flooding this week; although rated as far less important by most of the western media, overwhelming floods in south India, Bangladesh and Nepal have already cost more than 40 times as many lives as Harvey, killing 1200 people, and directly impacting on the lives of over 40 million.
These storms do, of course, follow exactly the pattern predicted by climate scientists, as world temperatures rise through the 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels mark, and carry on towards a likely three-degree rise - or more - by the end of the century. 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, 2017 looks set to surpass it, and our climate is, increasingly, recognisably different from what it was a generation ago; yet still, the political response seems at best patchy, and at worst characterised by complete denial.
The position of the present US administration is well known; Donald Trump was elected on the premise that climate change is a lie dreamed up by America’s enemies, and officials in US environmental agencies have now been forbidden even to use the phrase in communications.
The UK government is signed up to the Paris Accord, but is the only government in western Europe that has actually, in recent years, reduced support for renewable energy development, and increased subsidies to fossil fuel companies.
And even here in Scotland, where our government has set and met impressive carbon reduction targets, winning a high international reputation for climate policy, we have this week been marking the opening of the Queensferry Crossing, a breathtakingly beautiful bridge, and a true feat of 21st century engineering.
Yet this magnificent structure, born of what is supposed to be the age of carbon reduction, lacks even the minimal provision for walkers and cyclists that makes its 1964 neighbour, the Forth Road Bridge, into a human and civic space as well as a road; it is, in functional terms and at road level, nothing more than a giant, high-sided funnel for transporting carbon-fuelled motor vehicles from central Scotland to the north, and vice versa.
Now of course, the age of the carbon-fuelled car may be coming to an end; the future is electric, as many large car manufacturers now tell us. Yet still, the lack of serious environmental debate around the building of the new crossing, and the failure to make the new bridge a model for more varied road use, stands as a profound example of the gap that still exists between day to day policy-making - about how to facilitate our practical lives, and boost our economies - and our avowed principles on climate change; not to mention any long-term vision for ways of life that would sit more lightly on our precious planet, and help save it, and us, from a terrifying future of runaway climate change.
It is, to be sure, hardly surprising that our minds tend to reel at the scale of this task, and its apparent irrelevance to our daily lives; particularly if we still sit, as many of us do, in relatively comfortable western cities, where all systems are operating normally, and the waters are not yet lapping at our own doors.
Yet already, the outlines of various solutions are becoming visible, particularly in countries which have chosen to invest heavily in renewable energy. Most significantly, the cost of installing and running solar energy has been plummeting in recent years, with country after country across the developing world now choosing to by-pass the high costs and pollution of the “carbon age”, and to move directly to the age of solar power, provided by panels on the tops of city buildings, in deserts, and on every home.
If we look in the right places, in other words, we can begin to see the emerging shape of our post-carbon world. Rapid transition to those energy sources, combined with some technical effort to reverse the global warming that has already taken place, could - with effort and focus - restore our climate to stability by the end of the 21st century.
And along the way, we could create a whole new world of sustainable jobs, community empowerment, and calmer, healthier ways of living, more deeply connected to the natural world on which we all depend.
None of this will happen, though, without both a vision of where we are heading, and a willingness to review every aspect of policy in the light of that vision.
At the moment, the US government, ostrich-like, has its head in the sand and its bottom in the air, a posture which offers little hope.
Scotland’s SNP government, meanwhile, is gazing impressively at the horizon, while some of its own members get on with the “day job” of promoting conventional, resource-hungry economic growth. And nothing will change any of that except pressure from us, the people; determined to give our children and grandchildren a sustainable future, whether our politicians are equal to the challenge, or not.