New Yorkers are sunbathing in January, Muscovites missed their Christmas blanket of snow, and in the north of Scotland spring flowers appeared months early.
Unusually warm winter weather has been felt across the northern hemisphere in the past few months, with 2007 already predicted to be the warmest year on record.
These effects cannot be blamed with certainty on climate change, as they may simply be down to natural variations. But they are evidence of a growing trend of warmer weather that scientists say is the result of fossil fuel combustion. They also send a strong signal of the changes in weather we can expect from global warming: many northern areas will experience milder winters and hotter summers, while regions that now enjoy pleasantly warm temperatures will turn to desert.
Despite these increasing signs of danger, governments have still failed to reach agreement on how to combat climate change. The Kyoto protocol, the only international agreement to limit greenhouse gas production, has been rejected by the US, the world’s biggest emitter, and Australia, and imposes no obligations on developing countries such as China, which emits more carbon dioxide than the European Union.
Next year will see the beginning of the end of the Kyoto treaty. The emissions cuts that countries have agreed to, of 5 per cent below 1990 levels on average, must be measured between 2008 and 2012.
But there is, as yet, no agreement on what should replace the protocol when its provisions expire. Talks held by the United Nations each year since the treaty was negotiated in 1997 have failed to come up with an agreement on reduction targets that would be accepted by the US and that would slow the rapid increase in emissions from developing countries.
“Many people are questioning the entire process, asking whether the UN is a strong enough body to do this,” says Catherine Pearce, international climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, the environmental pressure group.
The Kyoto process has often been tortuous: it took five years from the drafting of its parent treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 1992 for the protocol to be negotiated and then a further seven years for it to come into effect, in early 2005.
The US has attempted to bypass the UN, through partnerships with other countries, including an Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which includes China, Japan and Australia.
Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, points to the US’s many bilateral and multilateral agreements to reduce emissions: “We are making a lot of progress through a variety of agreements with other countries.”
However, critics point out that, although these agreements may slow the growth in the US’s emissions, none of them requires the US to cut its overall greenhouse gas output, as the Kyoto protocol does.
The UN insists it can and will lead the necessary action to cut emissions. At November’s talks on the Kyoto treaty in Nairobi, Kofi Annan, then secretary-general, said: “The UN offers the tools the world needs to respond. Regional and national initiatives have their value. But the UN Framework Convention is the forum in which a truly global response is being formulated.”
Environmental groups, though frustrated by the lack of progress within the UN, agree the Kyoto process is the only forum in which an agreement can be forged to achieve the emissions cuts needed. Ms Pearce says: “Scientists say we have 10 years to start cutting emissions to avoid calamitous climate change. Given the time it took to negotiate Kyoto, we can’t afford the luxury of starting from scratch again.”
She warns that countries should not see other forums and multilateral agreements between handfuls of states as an alternative to the UN: “Only the UN framework has the authority and the legitimacy to agree something as profound as an international agreement beyond 2012.”