George Will Take Note: 1910 ≠ 2050

by Bill Chameides | September 18th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 4 comments

Probably the most popular U.S. car in 1910 was the Ford Model-T — a car that could go 45 m.p.h. on a 20-horsepower engine. Who’d have thought back then what cars nowadays can do? Probably not George Will. (U.S. Library of Congress)

You can always count on conservative columnist George Will’s take on climate to be entertaining.

Is Will 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?

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 1910: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1999, Table 1439 [pdf]

Passenger cars in 2005: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Households with TVs: 2009 Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 1090 [pdf]

Cellphone subscribers: 2009 Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 1112 [pdf]

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, faculty, policy, politics
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  1. Travis
    Sep 20, 2009

    That no one–including and especially government central planners–in 1910 could have seen the future in 2009 or 2050 should be instructive. Waxman-Markey is government central planning. Waxman will produce a result, maybe even one some will like, but it will do it in destructive and unanticipated ways. Not only can government central planners NOT see the future, they cannot see the present. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek have explained in very logical terms why central planning always fails. For one, central planners can never have all of the information, much of which is peculiar to time and place, needed to coordinate their plans. As such, the plans must be arbitrary and based on the particular bias of the planner. Lacking the necessary information, they cannot anticipate the unexpected difficulties that will arise because of the conflicts resulting from their failure to understand or consider that plans of individuals that are counter to the their plans. To quote Don Lavoie: “[N]o single hierarchial agency could attain a level of intelligence to rival that which merges socially from the competitive [market pricing] process…the planning agency is necessarily less knowledgeable than the system which it is trying to guide….Understanding how an economy works involves paying attention to the circumstances, meaning, and consequences of the individual human actions that make up an economic order.” Dean Bill Chameides take note: 2009 does not equal 2050. Waxman-Markey hasn’t got a clue as to how to manage climate or anything else. Travis Cork

    • Bill Chameides
      Sep 22, 2009

      Travis: the point to a cap-and-trade system is there is NO government central planning. A cap is set on emissions and the marketplace does the rest, finding the most efficient and effective ways to meet the cap in an organic and natural fashion.

    • Marcus
      Sep 22, 2009

      Travis Cork: The whole point of market-based environmental mechanisms such as cap-and-trade or taxes is that they are NOT central planning: they are attempts to correct externalities which otherwise would not be included in the competitive market pricing process. Without some kind of government regulation/signal markets would have little reason to reduce noxious emissions of all kinds: I kind of like breathing clean air and approve of policies that encourage it. Similarly, I kind of like my climate the way it is, and approve of policies that reduce the probability that the climate will change drastically. Is Waxman-Markey the best possible way of doing so? Probably not. But is it the best realistic opportunity we have? It very well may be.

  2. Andrew
    Sep 21, 2009

    “While a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 10000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers of the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.” – Popular mechanics, 1949

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