As the story goes, the courtiers of the 11th-century Anglo-Scandinavian king, Canute, told him that he was "so great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back."
Knowing that this was nonsense, Canute, a pious Christian, had his throne moved to the beach. As the waves came in, he commanded them to desist. When the waves paid him no mind, he proclaimed, "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey."
Twenty-first century governmental leaders could learn a lot from this 11th-century Viking king.
At the recent G8 summit, the leaders of the world's largest industrialized economies agreed to stop the world from getting too warm. Really. In their communique, they said that "the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees [Celsius]." Or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just like it's one thing to command the waves to desist and another to literally stem the tide, saying that temperatures ought not to rise and actually making that happen are entirely different matters.
By way of making that happen, the G8 communique calls for the 32 industrialized nations to cut CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050. As you no doubt realize, 32 nations are more than 8 nations. That means that the G8's plans to limit the world's temperatures require that other countries join them in standing athwart the climate and saying, "Go back!"
Or, as Germadn Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, "even if all G8 countries cut their emissions, we will not meet the 2 degree goal without the emerging economies."
And the problem is that the emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil have no interest in yelling, "Go back!" Brazilian president Lula spoke for many when he said, "We don't want to continue to be second-class citizens. We want to go to the top floor." For that matter, Russia, a member of the G8, has said that it won't "sacrifice economic growth for the sake of emission reduction."
Nobody knows how, or even if, the kind of cuts being discussed can be made without sacrificing economic growth.
What is certain is that simply declaring that the world shouldn't warm up more than we want won't magically solve the technical and economic challenges.
To be fair, not everything about the pronouncement was Canute-like. For one thing, I am fairly certain that nobody was seated on a throne when the communique was released.
But while the Viking king knew the limits of his authority and competence, the hubris of world leaders today, in contrast, has us imagining that we can control the weather. As the G8 was setting the global thermostat, Bill Gates and others claimed to have developed a technology that suppresses hurricanes. I'm serious.
It isn't only the weather. We also speak about "directing our evolution" through biotechnology. Our confidence in our ability to control nature knows no bounds.
Eventually, the tide will come in. Let's pray that it's only our vanity that gets washed away.