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Opinion: What to do while the world burns?

How we're out of time on global warming and why Copenhagen needs to get some tangible laws.

A laborer burns paddy waste stubble at a field on the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, Nov. 5, 2009. India is among the countries most at risk from climate change that could dry up its rivers, affect the crucial monsoon rains, wipe out forests and glaciers. (Ajay Verma/Reuters)

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.