THERE’S a photo in a report on the global decline of insects that brings tears to my eyes. It shows a group of volunteers in Suffolk, in the dead of night, shining a torch on a bush in the hope of spotting a wormwood moonshiner beetle. In that image the most pressing problem facing all of us is distilled. It shows the scarcity of once teeming wildlife under our feet, and the tender concern of those wise to the threat the disappearance of creepy crawlies poses for every living creature, whether fish, birds, or us.

The announcement that the speed of decline in insect populations across the world is so fast it represents a possible sixth mass extinction of species was staggering. While we’ve been focused on the plight of endangered mammals, like the polar bears filmed a few days ago roaming the streets of an Arctic town in search of food, an even worse catastrophe has been unfolding at a micro level. Of course we’ve been aware of the precipitous decline in butterflies and bees, but I certainly did not know that the problem extended to the entire insect kingdom. This, we are told, is declining at eight times the rate of mammals, birds and reptiles, with a loss of about 2.5 per cent a year. If the trend continues, these creatures, from midges to ladybirds, dragonflies to earwigs, will be entirely gone in a century. Anecdotal evidence is already there, such as the scientist who recently drove 400 miles across Australia and did not once have to wash his screen clear of bugs. A few years ago, he said, they would have been sticking to the window like stamps.

To that piece of apocalyptic news has just been added more. The Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think tank, has issued a report castigating politicians for refusing to take environmental problems seriously enough. Citing the various elements that are combining to create a perfect storm of crises that will engender social and economic instability, among them global warming and species decline, it says there has never been a time in history when things were changing so swiftly. Yet people in power are not doing nearly enough to avert impending danger.

It recalls the warning issued last autumn, when we were told there were 12 years in which to prevent the worst effects of climate change. As one expert said, whether or not we reach the target of keeping below a 1.5C temperature rise, “lives of people will never be the same again”.

And that’s the main point. Things are already irretrievably damaged. Everything that we do now is to protect the planet from a worst-case scenario. The horse has galloped almost beyond view, but with dedication and an iron will, we might just be able to coax it back to the paddock, if not the stable.

The impending collapse of nature has happened on our watch, and we are all complicit. It is heartbreaking to consider the impact this will have on future generations, not to mention our own. Surely there is an obligation on all of us to reassess the way we live, to shrink our carbon footprint as far as we can, whether it’s the way we travel, or the food we buy, or the plants and flowers we grow in our gardens. But while individuals can help, it is governments who must make the sort of strategic national decisions necessary drastically to reduce the levels of harm human activity is causing.

It seems to me that in the UK, and elsewhere, our leaders are almost criminally reluctant to do what’s required. In part it’s a reflection of ignorance about the scale of the problem – sometimes wilful denial. It is also a recognition of the unpopularity of imposing measures that people won’t like.

Why is it, though, that politicians can spend months arguing over issues that are essentially cosmetic, thereby fiddling while Rome burns? Leaving the EU is a mere diversion from the things that in the long term will truly matter. If the money being spent on Brexit preparations had been instead channelled into agricultural improvements, or transport systems taking cars off the road, or inducements to greener lifestyles, we would all benefit tremendously more than by declaring ourselves free from dominion by Brussels’ bureaucrats.

That’s only one example. If Westminster and Holyrood do not address this fast approaching calamity with the urgency it demands, we will have reason to question the motives, and the ethics, of those leading us towards the brink. Tinkering won’t change anything. There needs to be a joined-up blueprint for protecting the environment from industrial-scale destruction, not just by intensive farming but by pouring concrete on vast swathes of green space, creating faster cars with bigger engines, pulling back on green energy projects, and so on.

What is needed is a battle plan. Because it is no longer possible to pretend everything is okay, and will remain so. What we are now facing is a fight for our lives – and for those of every other creature on the planet.

Read more: Welcome to Brexit Britain, where common sense is rationed