And That’s How That Is

My father used the expression “and that’s how that is.” Saying those words was marking acceptance of a situation for what it was, and not for what he or others hoped it would be. Perhaps an object had been broken, or there was unexpected bad news. In reaction to the event he could be sad, angry, confused, or what have you; yet, at the same time he accepted the reality of the situation.

What brings the phrase to mind is the lack of honesty of that portion of the recent G7 declaration focusing on climate change (see my last blog post). One can be shocked, or angry, or aghast, or dispirited—any of these feelings seem appropriate—but the likelihood is that none of the emotions will change the declaration, its successor statements from the G7, or the inadequate steps that may be agreed upon at the Paris climate summit late this year.

There have been many watershed moments in our understanding of climate change during the past 50 years, including publication of The Limits to Growth more than 40 years ago, release of five IPCC reports over a period of nearly a quarter-century, and Pope Francis’s recent encyclical about climate change. We can add the G7 declaration as another watershed moment, when leaders of the Western world, plus Japan, failed to be honest about climate change, representing in their official declaration the idea that global temperature increases can be held to less than 2° C more cheaply and easily than experts believe possible.

It is true that the G7 leaders have been dealt a difficult, if not impossible, hand. Apathy, ignorance, pessimism, a well-funded opposition, and other factors make combating climate change a formidable problem. Most people do not want to hear the truth and would not believe it if they did. However, the difficulty of conveying hard truths does not make it right for the G7 leaders to issue a declaration that puts a far-too-happy face on a dire situation.

What is more, there is a déjà vu quality about the recent G7 meeting because it reminds one of other climate meetings that failed to produce what the world’s experts say is needed. Focusing in particular on the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen Marcus Brigstocke, an English comedian, wrote a poem about the climate summit in the style of Dr. Seuss, the last portion of which reads:

And they blew it, and wasted the greatest of chances
Instead they all frolicked in diplomat dances
And decided decisively, right there and then
The best way to solve it’s to meet up again
And decide on a future that’s greener and greater
Not with action right now but with something else later.

Humor aside, it may be difficult for many people to process feelings about the lack of honesty in the G7 declaration. Nonetheless, adopting the phrase my father used: And that’s how that is (and how it has been for years).

Where is Honesty about Climate Change from Leaders of the G7?

On June 8, 2015 leaders of the G7 nations, including President Obama, released an official declaration about their commitment to mitigate climate change. This written declaration is disingenuous, naïve, or simply dishonest. Leaders of the Western world are disseminating false claims that the earth will warm no more than 2 °C.

(As background, the “group of seven nations,” G7, includes the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Russia was a member of the G8 but was suspended, and is not part of the G7.)

The leaders’ declaration claims that an agreement at the pending Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris late this year will “enable all countries to follow a low-carbon and resilient development pathway in line with the global goal to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C.” Yet this claim is completely at odds with the emission reduction targets identified in the declaration’s following paragraph.

The target for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the declaration says, should be “40 to 70 percent reductions by 2050 compared to 2010” with an emphasis on “the upper end.” However, experts know and have clearly said that far greater reductions than 40 to 70 percent will be necessary to limit global warming to 2 °C. For example, Prof. Richard Somerville, a coordinating lead author for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007), has used what he calls the “ski slope graph” to show politicians the choices available to keep global warming to 2 °C. If 2015 were to be the peak year of global GHG emissions (a big “if”), the world would then need to reduce emissions by 5.3% annually — an enormous task — which in turn would result in virtually eliminating all emissions by 2050.

Leaders of the G7 have dozens of world-class climate experts available to help them craft declarations like this one. The experts know better than to make such a false claim. As an example, when I asked one environmental expert in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs yesterday what are the chances that global warming will be limited to 2 °C he immediately replied “zero.”

The emission reduction targets identified in the declaration are far too low even if they were to be adopted by every nation in the world. But of course the G7 does not include China (now the world’s number one source of greenhouse gas emissions), India, Russia, or Australia, all of which must make significant reductions in GHG emissions for any global mitigation plan to be effective.

Politicians sometimes feel they are well advised to shade the truth. However the biggest barrier to combating climate change is persuading humanity of the need to make rapid and significant changes in behavior before it is too late. Evading the hard truths about global warming may seem convenient for our political leaders, yet such evasion can be viewed as the essence of the enormous problem facing mankind.