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In the wake of the shambles at Copenhagen, we could do worse than contemplate Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The two characters converse endlessly and anxiously, while they wait for the mysterious Godot to arrive and secure their enlightenment. But Godot never shows up, even though he keeps sending word that he will.

Trapped in the Theater of the Absurd, Vladimir and Estragon are at least ennobled by fidelity to their vain hope. We’re much worse off, because our Godot – aka Barack Obama – actually showed up at Copenhagen. And, in one day, the vain hope of the world’s collective Vladimirs and Estragons was revealed to be just that.

Here’s the final score, as tabulated by Climateinteractive.org. We need a binding emissions limit that will keep the 21st-century temperature increase below 1.5° C. But Copenhagen produced nothing except a sheaf of non-binding “commitments” which, even if they actually materialized, would produce an increase of 3.9 ° C. And actual emissions are on track toward 4.8° C. Both these figures are, to put it simply, catastrophic for everybody: developing countries, developed countries -- everybody.

Not so, say the post-Copenhagen press releases from Washington, Beijing and other capitals. With florid prose worthy of Mr. Micawber, the imprisoned debtor in Dickens’ David Copperfield, they unite in assuring us that “something will turn up.” That something will apparently be revealed at a future conference, date as yet unspecified.

A charming thought but, as our leaders may have noticed, they are playing to an empty theater now that Godot has failed to deliver.

So let’s face it. After the default at Copenhagen, we can see that the world’s “responsible” national authorities will not acknowledge the tipping point so powerfully evoked by Jim Hansen, Bill McKibbon and others. If we go past this point, we will be helpless spectators as the climate system shifts to a hot state that our civilization will not survive. And no serious person who has actually considered the science can dismiss the significant possibility that the tipping point is real, and quite near.

Confronted by this stark reality, we have to ditch Godot and move on. The floor is open for suggestions – I’ll offer some myself in the coming weeks.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.