George Will Take Note: 1910 ≠ 2050

11/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Originally published at

You can always count on George Will's take on climate to be entertaining.

Is the conservative columnist erudite? Absolutely. Buttoned-up and bow-tied? Always. On message? Without a doubt. On the right side of history? Well, definitely on the right, but as for the history part? Not so much.

A case in point -- his recent Newsweek piece titled "An Ivy League Huey Long?" It starts out as a critique of President Barack Obama and the health care thing and then not very subtly pivots about halfway through into a full-frontal attack on proposals to cap greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. So let's take a look at what the hubbub is all about.

Will's Impossible Target

Using data from an American Enterprise Institute report, Will argues that cutting U.S. emissions 83 percent by 2050 -- the goal of the Waxman-Markey bill the House passed in June -- is impossible. How definitive is his pronouncement? You be the judge: He says: "That. Will. Not. Happen." (Punctuation is Will's.)

The Logic Behind the Pronouncement

These are the stats that form the basis for the Will argument:

U.S. Annual CO2 Emissions:

In 1910: 1 billion tons

In 2005: 6 billion tons

Proposed for 2050 in Waxman-Markey: ~ 1 billion tons

Annual U.S. CO2 Emissions Per Capita:

In 1910: 11 tons

In 2005: 20 tons

Proposed for 2050 in Waxman-Markey: ~ 2.5 tons

So, Will points out, meeting the target would be the equivalent of going back to 1910 in terms of our nation's greenhouse gas emissions, and in terms of per capita emissions going back beyond 1910 to somewhere around 1875. He contends that this is a ridiculous notion, and, quoting from the American Enterprise Institute report, he concludes that "meeting the 2.4-ton goal 'is not going to be seriously attempted.'"

And Now the Fallacy: 'Can't Do' Equals 'Can't Imagine'

Perhaps someone needs to remind Mr. Will as he taps away on his PC, while texting his wife and monitoring CNN headlines and checking for weather updates courtesy of a downlink from a NOAA satellite, that the world changes, that technological innovation happens. What has 1910 to do with what might be possible in 2050?

Number of households with a TV 0 110 million [pdf] Number of cell phone subscribers 0 208 million [pdf]

Over that same period, between 1910 and 2005, the carbon intensity of our emissions, the tons of CO2 emitted per unit of gross domestic product, has fallen by a factor of 4:

In 1910: 2.11 tons CO2 per $1,000 (USD 2000)

In 2005: 0.55 tons CO2 per $1,000 (USD 2000)

Could Anyone from 1910 Have Foreseen Today's High Tech?

Imagine George Will being back in 1910 when the day's most popular car -- the Model T -- topped out at 45 miles per hour, the only movies around were black and white and silent, and listening to music on a cutting-edge Victrola meant giving it a crank after every few songs.

If Will were back then and told that in less than 100 years Americans would be routinely driving automobiles, watching television, and talking with people almost anywhere in the world on a small, personal phone, would he have taken such ideas "seriously?" Could any of us, living back in 1910, have foreseen the technological innovations of the last century?

The state of the world today is no more a measure of what is technologically possible in 2050 than the state of the world in 1910 was a marker of possibility for our time.

To use the state of the world in 1910 to rule out the range of technological possibilities in 2050 is ... well let's just say a wee bit conservative.

Notes and Sources

Population in 1910 was 92,228,496. GDP in 1910 was 472.7 billion (2000) dollars.

Passenger cars in 2005: Bureau of Transportation Statistics