Even as our banking institutions go into meltdown and stock markets remain volatile, I remain in no doubt that climate change is the biggest issue facing us, now and in the future.

The financial turbulence is already impacting upon many of us: people are losing jobs, the value of pensions is reducing, houses are being repossessed. But the economy will bounce back, house prices will rise again and pensions will recover their values over time.

On the other hand, when a great chunk of the 150m people in Bangladesh is cleared out by floods, when islands disappear from the map and millions more can no longer feed themselves in Africa, the global impact will be catastrophic and there will be no simple bounce back to the status quo in a couple of years. The evidence that the rapid changes in our climate are largely due to human activity is overwhelming, and much of it has taken place since today’s teenagers were born. The potential impact on the world economy and the well-being of our global population is cataclysmic.

All around the world, well-intentioned people are responding to this impending tragedy but their effort is being dissipated, spread thinly over myriad initiatives. At the Construction Industry Council (CIC) we firmly believe that carbon is a proxy for sustainability – in other words, we can achieve widespread sustainability gains by focusing the main effort on carbon.

So we are mobilising built environment professionals to concentrate on creating a carbon-critical world, through the evolution of a work programme that co-ordinates the combined effort of 30 professional bodies (including the CIOB), which together have more than 500,000 members worldwide. The programme examines how to reduce carbon in infrastructure and new build projects, as well as carbon pricing and skills and training issues. The CIC is also hosting the industry group charged with achieving the carbon targets and reductions in the joint industry and government Strategy for Sustainable Construction, launched in June.

In his 2006 review Lord Stern characterised the economic impact of climate change as being greater in scale than two world wars and the Great Depression combined. But he also believes that the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is feasible and can be consistent with continued economic growth. While there is no doubt that the transition to a low-carbon economy will bring challenges for competitiveness, it will also create new opportunities for business growth.

In his recent lecture to the presidents of CIC member institutions, CIC chair Keith Clarke, chief executive officer of Atkins, said: ‘Even if there is a one in a thousand chance that the science of climate change is flawed, we cannot bet the planet on being wrong. The risks are too great. But if we are successful in weaning ourselves off increasingly expensive energy then the downside bet is not a bad one.’ Of course, there are plenty of skeptics around, but are we willing to gamble our land on their particular variation of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

The CIC and all its members must play a collective role in reducing our society’s carbon dependency and delivering adaptation to the already apparent and inevitable consequences of climate change. As Keith Clarke also said, ‘this is not a try harder scenario’ – it cannot just be a case of us all trying to do a little better. Writing in the magazine for the Royal Academy of Engineers, the eminent engineer and risk specialist Dr Scott Steedman put the challenge is these terms: ‘Carbon needs to become the key decider in every engineered solution… the primary design determinant.’ He argues that we need a paradigm shift – a step change – in engineering design philosophy.

The idea of carbon criticality goes well beyond the design of buildings, and applies to all built environment professionals. In every sector, they have considerable influence in the market and in their professional organisations. Unlike politicians, the professions are not constrained by time-limited political terms and can show leadership with a long term perspective.

They also have powerful opportunities for advocacy: with clients; with others engaged in designing, constructing, managing, maintaining and using the built environment; with regulators; and with policy and decision makers at every level.

We must all use this power wisely and not allow the strength of this leadership position to be undermined by short-term commercial concerns. Government needs our help, because on its own, it will never learn quickly enough.

We do not have time for worthy debate about sustainability, or who is to blame for climate change. In the CIC, and the CIOB, we must show leadership and take responsibility for creating the necessary paradigm shift.