Opinion: What to do while the world burns?

PARIS, France — Back when primal-scream therapy was the rage in California, a friend fell asleep in a tangle of limbs by a blazing hearth. At dawn, sparks ignited the shag rug.

Someone shrieked, “FIRREEE!” Others, stupefied from the previous day’s psycho-dramatics and smoke from other sources, sleepily mumbled stuff like, “Yeah, man, let it out.”

Copenhagen is now upon us, and I think about this scene. For 20 years, climate scientists have banged ever louder on alarms. Still, we open one eye and nod off again.

The truth, however inconvenient, is that we all face calamity beyond imagination. Rather than take comprehensive action, we find excuses to stall and quibble over details.

“We’re like people racing downhill in buses without brakes, arguing over what song to sing,” Arundhati Roy remarked not long ago in New Delhi.

I interviewed her for the “Out of Poverty” issue of Dispatches and kept the notes for the next quarterly issue, on climate collapse: “Endgame.” The subjects are the same.

“All of this has to stop,” she said, “and it won’t stop until people realize it is in their own enlightened self-interest for it to stop.”

How long will that take? Do we have to wait until Tucson, like Timbuktu, begins to vanish under encroaching sand dunes? If that sounds too apocalyptic, look at facts.

I started reporting on weather anomalies early in the 1980s when West Africans and then Ethiopians died in the millions from inexplicable drought and freak rain torrents.

Back then, a smart U.N. scientist showed me data on rising seas. You can’t track it in steady increments, he said. One year, there is nothing. The next, adios Samoa.

Later in the 1980s, climatologists woke up some world leaders. A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fit together the pieces and urged immediate global action.

Editors laughed off the few reporters who took notice. Ben Bradlee told me he’d put environment copy on the front page when the Washington Post newsroom was underwater.

Politicians thinking about re-election were hardly eager to make economic policy change, or ask for sacrifice, over some vague threat few voters bothered to understand.

Lobbyists blurred the picture with skewed science. Today’s profits and status-quo job security outweighed any fresh thinking to protect the generations to follow.

Twenty years later, we are out of time and out of excuses. A lot of damage is already irreversible. But much can still be avoided by comprehensive, urgent action.

China is now the worst offender, and projections show that its single-minded focus on growth will poison the planet to a harrowing degree. But it is a dictatorship.

America must take the lead, partly because it made the most mess but much more because it is a democracy and its citizens get to decide what they think is the right thing.

It was Congress — Americans’ elected representatives — that torpedoed the Kyoto agreement even though Al Gore presided over the Senate. We should be smarter now.

The European Union is prepared to do more but not if Copenhagen amounts to arm wrestling over how little the Americans and the Chinese each have to give up.

If Washington and Brussels can find common ground, both can pressure Beijing to do its part. Now, however, each is enabling the others to waffle.

Developing countries suffer the most and pollute the least. But that argument applies only up to a point. Each has a responsibility when everyone’s survival is at stake.

“Cap and trade,” a badly understood catchphrase, allows large companies to continue spewing contaminates in the air. They pay for the right with increased profits.

Pointless debates cost us vital time. Is this man’s fault or God’s? Who cares? It’s happening. For proof, we can go to the Maldives or Greenland or the Alps — or any supermarket to check food prices.

Individuals’ efforts help, but they are not nearly enough. We need laws. National governments, international organizations, and big business have to act now.

We also need substantial public funding to develop alternative energy and mass transportation along with curbs on oil companies that thwart greener competition.

We need education programs, massive and urgent, to explain in clear terms why this is so crucial. We should all understand what we are doing to our own children.

With so many ifs and musts, this smacks of a deluded idealist’s rant. But take it as despair from a reporter who for decades has watched the world dry up and blow away.

Of course, this is all difficult to achieve. But what is the option?

That smoldering shag rug has already ignited the redwood paneling, and someone better turn on the hose. If we continue to doze in a collective stupor, we are cooked.