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Gambling the World Economy on Climate

The United Nations climate conference in Paris starting Nov. 30 will get under way when most minds in the French capital will still understandably be on the recent terror attacks. But for many of the 40,000 attendees, the goal is to ensure that climate change stays on the global economic agenda for the next 15 years.

The Paris conference is the culmination of many such gatherings and is expected to produce agreements on combating climate change. President Obama and the dozens of other world leaders planning to be in Paris should think carefully about the economic impact—in particular the staggering costs—of the measures they are contemplating.

The U.N.’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, says openly that the aim of the talks is “to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution.” That outlook will be welcome among attendees like the delegation from Bolivia. That country’s official material submitted for the talks proposes a “lasting solution” for climate change: “We must destroy capitalism.”

Perhaps capitalism as “a system of death” is a minority view, but the agreements coming out of Paris are likely to see countries that have flourished with capitalism willingly compromising their future prosperity in the name of climate change. But before ditching that economic model, it’s worth considering how much progress it has brought.

For one, life expectancy in the past 150 years has more than doubled, to 71 years in 2013 from fewer than 30 years in 1870. Meanwhile, billions of people have risen out of poverty. One and a half centuries ago, more than 75% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, consuming less than $1 a day, in 1985 money. This year the World Bank expects extreme...


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