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It might not seem like it, but climate sceptics and climate alarmists agree on a fair bit. One of the biggest flaws with both Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme and Tony Abbott’s direct action plan isn’t that they are great big taxes or climate con jobs. It’s that they are futile.

Any Australian cut in carbon dioxide emissions is worthless if not part of a global effort. And right now it looks like the chances of a global agreement on serious emissions cuts are effectively nil. You don’t have to be a sceptic or alarmist to understand a policy that can’t achieve its goal is a failure before it starts.

The Copenhagen meeting reminded the world the domestic politics and pressures of emerging economies like China and India cannot easily be submerged by a global flood of environmental goodwill. And without including those two polluters, a global agreement will be meaningless.

Worse, it will look meaningless. That is a bigger problem for leaders like Kevin Rudd who wanted success in Copenhagen to endorse their leadership at home. Foreign policy is domestic politics with translators.

There will be another United Nations climate meeting in Mexico City later this year. Don’t get your hopes up. Yvo de Boer, the UN climate chief who retired in February, told the Financial Times he did not expect an emissions treaty in 2010 either. And public support for emissions reduction is dwindling. If you, like our Prime Minister, believe climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time, you’re probably pretty glum.

But we haven’t had the genuine debate about climate policy.

We could keep trying to stop global warming with taxes, industry plans, corporate welfare, solar panel and insulation subsidies, and fruitless diplomacy. Or we could try to adapt to it. After all, the problem with global warming isn’t the warming per se, it’s the consequences of warming.

Climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor. The developing world has neither the resources nor the infrastructure to cope with changes in climate. Bangladesh is more at risk from climate change than Holland, even though both are susceptible to flooding.

Bangladesh doesn’t need global carbon dioxide emissions to stabilise. Bangladesh needs to become like Holland. The poor need to get rich. They need economic growth. It also makes countries resilient against disasters not caused by climate change, like the earthquake in Haiti.

Growth produces increasing living standards, jobs, innovation, and individual wellbeing. Because growth is strongest in countries with liberalised markets, rule of law, and representative institutions, it carries with it equality and human rights. By contrast, at best, trading economic growth for lower emissions will just leave us with lower emissions. And we’ll be poorer.

Without an emissions treaty, there’s still reason for optimism. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says by the end of the century, per capita income will have doubled, at least. The world could be 20 times richer.

Take such predictions with a grain of salt: imagine a bunch of geniuses in 1910 trying to guess what the economy in 2000 would look like. Or what the chemical make-up of the atmosphere would be. (We think we’re pretty smart, well so did our ancestors.)

But the IPCC predicts economic costs of global warming will be a tiny fraction of that growth – between 1 per cent and and 5 per cent of gross domestic product. As the environmental economist Richard Tol wrote in January, “a deep recession wreaks as much havoc in a year as climate change would do in a century. Climate change is therefore not the biggest problem of humankind.” (Tol is an IPCC lead author and therefore not a crackpot.)

It doesn’t really matter whether climate change is caused by humans or part of a natural cycle. It might halve the yield of crops planted in the poorest parts of the world. But if those farmers used the advanced techniques of rich countries, they could more than make up for it.

Malaria caused by rising temperatures could be combated by a co-ordinated political effort to reduce global emissions. Or we could concentrate a fraction of that effort on developing a malaria vaccine.

Growth will fortify us against a climate that always changes.

For if you can’t cure the disease, manage the symptoms.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April 2010