Deep below the grassy banks of the River Don, canaries would warn of impending catastrophe. Now that the mineshafts are empty and the birds have gone it can seem the entire kingdom of nature is alerting us to imminent catastrophe. Amid this corner of South Yorkshire, slag heaps and scraps of woodland struggle for space with sprawling rubbish tips alongside the brackish ebb of one of the most polluted waterways in Britain.
A few miles down the Don, close to the centre of England, marks the point where Britain's green dream died. Here, opposite the village of Conisborough, lies the world's first environmental theme park. The Earth Centre was meant to inspire us to a cleaner lifestyle. Almost £60m of public money was lavished on the idea that the British public would embrace sustainable development, a way of living that would guarantee future generations do not inherit a broken planet. Eventually, however, the ideology behind Britain's first landmark millennium attraction became unsustainable. The truth is we never really cared.
Maybe the Earth Centre was ahead of its time, too esoteric for a society used to the here-and-now. Yet those whose life is devoted to researching the fate of our polluted, populous planet felt its message arrived, if anything, too late. During the five years since the centre wooed us with its imperative for change, the planet's health has steadily deteriorated. Man has embarked on the greatest extinction of species since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago; the great forests are dying; the deepest oceans are haemorrhaging life at a rate almost unimaginable a decade ago; while the highest peaks have shed their shawl of snow for the first time since the last Ice Age. And every day man-made poisons leach into the ground, our water and bodies. No one knows where we are heading. All that seems certain is that the face of our island, disfigured beyond recognition in a few centuries, will change at a rate faster than history can predict.
The portents are ominous. Less than two per cent of the UK remains cloaked in ancient forests - 15 times less land than that coated beneath concrete. We have become one of the least-wild countries in Europe, but few seem to mind. Perhaps the concept of climate change and evaporating ice shelves will always remain too abstract for most Britons to comprehend. By contrast, the Dutch and Germans travelled hundreds of miles in their droves to the Earth Centre, until the attraction closed down. Unlike many who live close by, they never doubted ministers who once hailed the project every bit as significant as the Millennium Dome.
Brutalised by the complexities of balancing economic competitiveness and the needs of nature, South Yorkshire remains among the most polluted patches of Britain. Long after the Industrial Revolution, two-thirds of all cancer-causing chemicals spewed into our skies are being belched from factories found in the most deprived 10 per cent of communities.
It has fallen to Eton-educated Jonathon Porritt to persuade us of the virtues of a sustainable lifestyle. Porritt is the man picked by Tony Blair to succeed where the Earth Centre failed, finished off, ironically, by the rainfall last August, Yorkshire's wettest on record. From his Gloucestershire headquarters, the chairman of the government's Sustainable Development Commission is phlegmatic about the task. 'It is not an easy message to get across, but essential. We need to live in a less damaging way, but raising awareness can be a slow, painful process.'
Tony Upton spends most Sunday mornings scrubbing his Peugeot 406. It is more out of pride than necessity: the gleaming metallic-green paintwork parked on the driveway of Doncaster's Stonecross Gardens - four miles from the Earth Centre - could only belong to a new vehicle. It is almost the same model as the old family car, last seen by the nation bobbing down the ripped-out heart of the Cornish village of Boscastle. Viewers missed the 59-year-old yanking his son from the family car moments before it was dragged face-down towards the Atlantic. They similarly missed the hours of ferocious rain that engorged Cornwall's rivers to an impossible fatness. Until then Upton thought he had seen flooding. After all, the River Don, like most these days, is more prone to bursting its banks. The millions who gawped at the images of 'Dinky' cars tossed downstream through a quaint English tourist town knew something terrible had gone wrong.
Yet the government's advisers shared only a muted sense of awe: they had been waiting for something like Boscastle for some time. Mention climate change to John Schellnhuber and his features, browned from a never-ending global tour witnessing the latest twist of nature, crease with anxiety. He is research director of the Tyndall Centre, where Britain's most eminent scientists chart the latest erratic meteorological episode. 'This is only the start; we need to raise the reality that we are heading into danger. Things could get grim for us all,' says the 54-year-old physicist.
Precisely a month after Boscastle, the Earth Centre, which had been preaching the threat of climate change to its underwhelmed public, closed down. Just when the nation demanded an explanation to the extraordinary events of 16 August, its message had been vanquished. Less than 48 hours after the Doncaster centre bolted its doors, Tony Blair received a final briefing from his chief scientific advisers. For a prime minister dogged by the need to find weapons of mass destruction, one had landed on his doorstep. The following day he announced a new industrial revolution, founded on sustainability. But Blair was not telling the whole story. If he had done so, Chancellor Gordon Brown's prudent book-keeping for a new economy might have been destined for a recyclable paper bin before he even began. Calculations by Schellnhuber suggest climate change could 'bankrupt Britain'. Insurers Munich Re believe that, by 2060, the cost of our changing weather will outstrip the total value of commodities and services produced by the global economy. Documents by United Nations officials completed in mid-October reveal that the number of people in the world struck by natural disasters has doubled over the past decade. Economic losses have more than trebled.
At almost the precise point the Earth Centre conceded nobody was interested, nature unleashed a sequence of global calamities. Four violent hurricanes took turns to batter Florida and the Caribbean; Bangladesh reeled from the most ferocious flooding in recent years; even the great glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, spanning a quarter of China's giant landmass, were found melting at a rate that would make survival this century a miracle. The most extreme temperature increase the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts is 5.8C this century. It may sound modest - we've all wallowed in 30C and, like Schellnhuber, got the tan to prove it. Yet an increase of half that would be enough for the ice sheets that encase Greenland to begin melting faster than they can be replaced, threatening a rise in sea level that could inundate much of south and eastern England; the recognisable lifestyles of millions depend on such distant waters remaining exactly where they are. Such scenarios convince Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, that global warming not only poses a threat greater than global terrorism, it is the biggest obstacle facing civilisation for 5,000 years.
Bjorn Lomborg offers a rather different assessment. The Danish statistician, whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist provoked outrage by daring to doubt climate change or in fact that the planet was in a poor state, has grown increasingly influential. Tackling HIV, the planet's chronic water shortages and unfair trade issues should take priority over a threat that is inherently long-term, he argues. His questioning of the risk of global warming is now on school curricula and governments call him for advice. Russia is not known to have sought Lomborg's views before ratifying the Kyoto protocol, the international treaty to reduce climate change gases. The move made Vladimir Putin an unlikely ecological saviour and saved the treaty from imminent collapse. Yet the planet's biggest polluter, the US, remains a seeming advocate of Lomborg's with its refusal to come on board. A previously unpublished map drawn up by Schellnhuber, to persuade the US to take climate change seriously, revealed that a sizeable chunk of Yorkshire could vanish in just over 50 years.
Millions along the coast from Hull to Norwich to Colchester to Southend-on-Sea, as well as the capital itself, could find themselves underwater. 'Britain's power came from the coastline and provided the ability to trade and defend itself against enemies. But now the sea could turn into a curse, its wonderful coastline is posing major problems,' says Schellnhuber.
So, too, the nation's once enviable infrastructure: London cannot cope with new-style monsoon showers and, for that reason, the Thames could upstage the Don as one of our most polluted rivers. Outrage greeted the 600,000 tonnes of excrement that slipped into the famous waterway in west London after the capital's sewers were overrun during one violent downpour, yet new figures reveal that since April an amount of untreated sewage enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall 120 times over has flowed into the Thames. And now 95.5 per cent of our rivers are in danger of failing new targets on pesticide poisoning and the destruction of endangered wetland habitats.
Across the capital, concern is being focused on the glinting metal barrier that safeguards the city from destruction. When the Thames Barrier opened just over 20 years ago it was closed three times that year. In 2003 this rose to a record 19 shutdowns. Soon it will offer no protection. On either side of the barrier are rolling fields which, for centuries, have remained unsettled for fear of being swept away. Yet amid warnings that flooding can only worsen, these vast flats that lie beneath high-tide level are the government's chosen site for tens of thousands of homes.
For some, the failure of the Earth Centre lent credence to the claims of woolly thinking that has blunted the ideology of Britain's environmental movement. It is an accusation repeated as the Greens face their greatest conundrum at a time when the earth contemplates its gravest threat.
If climate change is man-made, then reducing carbon-dioxide emissions becomes imperative. However, powering Britain in a manner that preserves our largely cosseted lifestyles without imperilling the planet is not that simple. The one proven source of electricity that does not exacerbate climate change is the enduring nemesis of the green ideal: nuclear power. Yet the reality is that Blair's green revolution is stuttering: less than three per cent of our electricity comes from the wind, sun and sea. In addition, Britain's main supply of electricity will soon expire, the North Sea's once-plentiful reserves of gas effectively drained in little more than a decade.
For their part, the dirty power stations that drove the Industrial Revolution are no longer tenable; their predilection for coal is what brought Britain to the brink of climate change in the first place. And so a fading nuclear vision, punctured by persistent safety and financial concerns, suddenly burns bright again. For many environmentalists such a move is anathema. Some of the Greens' greatest heroes have risked accusations of betrayal. James Lovelock, who coined the Gaia hypothesis, the notion that earth is sustained by the actions of living things, is among those delighting the still-mighty lobbying arms of the nuclear empire. Lovelock has urged his traditional allies to 'drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy'. Yet Zac Goldsmith, the 29-year-old editor of The Ecologist, is among those unimpressed, believing the nuclear trade is punching hard from its deathbed. Goldsmith says Blair's energy policies have tormented him. 'The government needs to expand his pitiful renewable energy programme and implement a massive programme of energy conservation. Any less would be frightening.'
At first glance, the piercing turquoise water looks perfect for a quick dip. But this pool is like no other on earth. Water may be the most basic component of life, but this shimmering pond can only offer a protracted fate. Compound B30, hidden way beneath the rust-streaked towers of Sellafield, is among the most radioactive places on the planet and, increasingly, the site that could derail plans for another era of nuclear power plants. Nestled at its foot is a thick sludge of around 400kg of plutonium, enough for 50 atomic bombs, though even its owners admit to not knowing exactly how much stuff is down there. EU inspectors have been refused full access to B30, prompting unprecedented legal action by Europe over its alleged instability. Should members of al-Qaeda ever find themselves staring into its blue-green depths, such fears would seem academic. If the Cumbrian complex were successfully attacked, Chernobyl would become a mere footnote, according to a British Defence Committee report over the summer.
Even without the aid of terrorism, Sellafield's plutonium has somehow contaminated children's teeth across Britain, but to what end remains a mystery. Only last month, government advisers admitted they did not understand the potential health effects of radioactive pollution on youngsters. More established are the impacts of the huge power stations that smother Britain. For years children on the M1 have gazed at West Retford, the prehistoric clump of cones a few miles south of Doncaster. The smoking summits of these ancient coal-burning power stations cough out particles linked to cancer, asthma and respiratory diseases that, even without climate change, would see them phased out. As it is, the world's first industrialised nation has more than five million people with asthma, the worst in Europe. The highest death rates from diseases related to air quality such as bronchitis and emphysema are found in Doncaster.
Ten minutes' drive from Doncaster, amid the sparse fields and windblown hedges of South Yorkshire, close to the village of Finningley, lies an old RAF station. Close by, ancient oak trees shed yellowing leaves upon scavenging squirrels; a magpie swoops overhead. The solitude is shattered by the groan of a heavy truck, then another, until the skyline is fractured by a massive metal and glass frame. This is Britain's first new international airport for 30 years. By next spring, the £80m project will have begun sating the dreams of 2.3 million holidaymakers a year. It has been named after Robin Hood, the folk hero who revered the lush woodlands of rural Britain.
Aviation is now considered one of the most serious environmental threats facing the world, accounting for the biggest increase of climate-change gases in Britain. Soon the Uptons will be able to boycott Boscastle in favour of Bologna, but their three-hour flight will churn out more polluting gases than the average motorist in a year. Blair, though, remains committed to a massive expansion of airport capacity, while imposing no tax on aircraft fuel. There is mounting unease among officials over such a glaring conflict with targets to reduce greenhouse gases. Appointed by the Queen to advise parliament, Sir Tom Blundell, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, widely considered Britain's leading environmental think-tank, despairs when the issue of air travel is brought up. For the 62-year-old, it is symptomatic of a failure to engage Britain with the environment. 'This expansion of civilian aviation is highly questionable in the context of climate change. We were once seen as the dirty man of Europe, but we still need a change in culture. Even the way we think has to change.'
Attempts to cover up the escalation in climate-changing gases from air travel following pressure from the Department of Transport highlight the government's internal embarrassment. New figures show that Britain's carbon-dioxide emissions are 30 per cent higher than the government has previously admitted. Ministers had again selected to eradicate aviation from their calculations. Motorists are similarly being encouraged to carry on as normal despite the fact that carbon-dioxide emissions from Britain's clogged roads are expected to rise 14 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Since this government came to power, the principal climate-change gases have increased. If the proposed wind farms around Thorne Moor, on the outskirts of Doncaster, were approved it might help matters. But, even though they fret over global warming, local conservationists do not want them. A recent Mori Poll found that 18- to 24-year-olds are the least likely to worry about green issues, creating the irony that the moment Blair implores the need for environmental thinking, saving the planet has never seemed less cool. Maybe the movement has moved too mainstream, become too middle aged, too middle class.
Matthew Dennys is like most other young teenagers. Not only for his obsession with football and computer games, but because his young body contains 32 toxic industrial chemicals. Some were banned a decade before he was born. The blood of Britain's youth is swirling with chemicals that mimic the female sex-hormone oestrogen and which are used in everyday items including furniture and appliances like the computer-game consoles that Dennys loves. In his short life, the Man United fan from Middleton has accumulated higher levels of everyday brominated flame retardants than his parents or grandmother.
When introduced in the 1930s, these chemicals were meant to revolutionise our lives. Dennys is an unwitting guinea pig in an accidental experiment that threatens to dismantle the evolutionary process that has existed for 3.5 billion years. Male infertility is rising, a low sex drive among men is increasingly prevalent, and sperm counts have halved in Britain over the past 50 years. Mother nature is taking over. Those studying the phenomenon believe it could become the public-health scandal of our times. Blundell, a leading biochemist, suggests available evidence, combined with the repeated failure to ban such substances, makes chemical contamination the next 'tobacco'.
Yet it is in a British backwater, within the murky flow of the River Aire that winds through the same floodplain as the Don, that the most compelling evidence exists that something strange is rippling throughout the realm of nature. Below the surface, all male fish studied by government scientists were changing sex; ovaries were found within their testes, while their genitals were vastly reduced.
Contraceptive pills washed through the sewage system and industrial toxins were blamed. More worrying is that the latest research reveals that the effect of hormone-mimicking chemicals has started clambering up the food chain. Seals, dolphins, otters, falcons and bees are among those suspected of embarking on a unisex existence that can only lead to extinction. Without any safety data for many of the substances linked to such an outcome, Blundell says we may have triggered 'a giant experiment' with both ourselves and nature.
There are no more holes left to fill. Just when we craved more, our crowded island has run out of space to discard the detritus of a throwaway society characterised by flapping pizza boxes and crinkled plastic bottles. Now, after new regulations demand dumping should be replaced by recycling, Britain's love affair with the rubbish tip is over. Breaking the habits of a lifetime will not be easy. Dennys, like the rest of us, throws out his own body weight in waste every two months. Yet Manchester, the metropolis on his doorstep, recycles just two per cent of household waste, compared to more than half of those from the countries that so loved the Earth Centre. They are shamed further by towns like Daventry in Northamptonshire, which boasts a national best of 44 per cent. In Doncaster itself, slightly less than the national average is recycled - 14.5 per cent - and the town has already admitted it will not be hitting next year's government target of a quarter.
However, in spite of or maybe because of this, life expectancy has increased, and most of us have never had a better standard of living. Progress, however, is always destined to yield new threats and, for his part, Blair has less than two months to put his 'green house' in order. Last month he promised to use the UK's presidency of the G8 group of leading industrial nations to combat the 'catastrophic consequences' of climate change. Only time will tell if it is a pledge he can deliver on.