But October marked an unprecedented opportunity for the US and UK to tackle climate change
October was a month that creaked and cracked. The insurance industry, already deeply implicated in the international financial crash, was battered by the fall-out from hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Their bill is estimated to be around $30bn (£18.2bn), far higher than predicted, according to Lloyd's of London. To show that God has a dark - you could call it "carbon black" - sense of humour, in the same month the oil giant BP's quarterly profits of £6.4bn cracked another record high, while Shell's rose to £6.6bn.
The sky creaked in another way too. Relentless coverage of global warming, a deluge of green corporate claims, legislative flurries and a redesign of government departments should suggest progress on climate change. But the figures tell another, worrying tale. Far from going down, the global growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions is spiking upwards.
Findings from the Global Carbon Project this month showed that the global average percentage rise since the year 2000 is now over three times higher than the previous decade, rising again significantly in the last year. These growth rates are now worse than the worse case scenario used by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to model potential global warming.Levels of carbon in the energy mix for both rich and poor countries are also going up.
Government confusion here in Britain was captured by two stories. In one, Ed Miliband, new minister at the new Department for Energy and Climate Change, announced the government's commitment to cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. In the other, the Evening Standard reported that "ministers are planning to water down EU pollution curbs in order to allow Heathrow airport to expand". Attempts at satire prove redundant. And the heat on the government over Heathrow is rising.
It was a victory, but not a straightforward one when, after relentless pressure, the government announced that greenhouse gas emissions from aviation and shipping would finally be included in targets for the climate change bill. The quirk comes from the fact that not all emissions are the same. It is unclear whether the government has understood that the full global warming impact of emissions from aviation can be up to five times greater than their headline carbon figure. Because of the particular chemistry of emissions from planes, and where and how they enter the atmosphere, tonne-for-tonne of carbon, aviation emissions are far more damaging than those from road, rail or sea.
Elsewhere in the international system, however, there were glimmers of bolder visions. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced a new green economics initiative. It adopted the moniker of a "green new deal", echoing the report of the same name published in July. At the UNEP launch the head of UNEP, Achim Steiner, lambasted what he called the "totally inadequate" response of public policy both to climate change and a range of other ecological crises. The environment secretary Hillary Benn, sitting to his right, just about managed to keep a straight face.
Last month saw another more literal cracking, of sea ice. According to research from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London, in some areas Arctic sea ice was up to one fifth thinner than usual for the time of year.
It's now 19 years since the Berlin wall came down, drawing the line under the old Eastern bloc. For all its brashness, triumphalism and smug self-satisfaction, finance-driven capitalism has managed to reign supreme for fewer than two decades before falling apart.
No one is more synonymous with the era of financial liberalisation than Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Under cross-examination by the US House oversight committee his words were heavy with the pathos of shattered illusion and hubris brought to earth, "I discovered a flaw," he said, "in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works."
But in the aftermath, in Britain and the US, there are intriguing possibilities. Following nationalisation of much of the finance sector, two governments formerly wedded to light touch, or even absent regulation, find themselves owning, in effect, great swathes of their countries' economies – banks, homes, buildings, infrastructure and much else besides. Gordon Brown said that now is a time of new and innovative thinking. He is now in a direct position to influence the investment policies and revolutionise the energy use and efficiency of much the economy.
It may be that governments still entangled in the habitual rhetoric of free markets, are embarrassed by their new, unaccustomed role. It could be that, having outsourced the exercising of power to the market place, they feel unpractised and not sure what to do. But the climate clock is still ticking – even speeding up. And, they now have an enormous opportunity to do what democratically elected governments are meant to do – take responsibility and protect their people from disaster.
• Andrew Simms is taking the global temperature each month as he counts down the 97 months before the world enters a new, far more perilous phase of global warming.