Hey, UN—It's time for action on climate change

We've all heard the saying "deer in the headlights," meaning someone unable to move and staring into oncoming danger. The recent UN climate change confab seemed full of such wildlife, but those headlights that are looming larger by the minute to our clueless friend are also about to smack the rest of us in the face.

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Earlier this month, Swiss Re, one of the world¹s largest global reinsurers, predicted the probability of a Category 4 hurricane hitting New York in the near future (like the Norfolk-Long Island storm of 1821) and compared this to Hurricane Sandy, which was "only" a Category 1 storm. Swiss Re found that the city is almost entirely unprepared for this larger storm, which would flood vast portions of Manhattan and cause more than $100 billion in damages and untold economic interruption, making it the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

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In sharp contrast, the leaders who met at the UN, with very few exceptions, had no serious plans to address these threats, recognizing the need to do something but with no more sense of urgency than the unsure-which-way-to-turn Bambi.

Notably absent from the summit was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who apparently stayed home to applaud his nation's successful Mars spacecraft. Just a few months ago, India's largest electricity producer warned that record demand, as a result of high temperatures and significantly lower rainfall (both long predicted by climate scientists), will increasingly make these shortages worse. Energy efficiency measures and renewable energy development, which Mr. Modi championed as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, could alleviate the situation and create significant new jobs while addressing India's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. But, like the deer, it's easier to be transfixed by a shiny object than to seriously address the looming crisis.

Nor are New York and India alone in this odd disconnect. In Australia, the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed economic costs when he repealed his nation's carbon tax and renewable energy target, dismantled the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Renewable Energy Agency, and approved massive new coal mining projects. But numerous studies show that the short term economic gains from coal mining will be offset by far greater costs to the Australian and global economies over time. Recent data from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that the combined impact of all the measures that would be needed to adequately address climate change would subtract no more than 0.06 percent from annual global economic growth, and that's before counting the health benefits of reduced air pollution, increased energy security, and avoided costs from devastating storms and droughts.

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In fairness, some governments are working on a softer landing, but weren't getting much attention at the UN. In California, Governor Jerry Brown recently signed 11 new bills addressing climate change and sustainable economic development, such as help for low-income residents to buy cleaner automobiles, speeding up permitting for solar installations, and addressing methane pollution. Unlike the Abbott government, he's done these things based on solid economic data — with all of its clean energy and climate change regulation, the value of goods and services produced in California in 2013 grew 3.6 percent compared to the U.S. rate of just 2.2 percent, and California manufacturing climbed 8 percent (to $204 billion in 2012) compared to a 7.4 percent increase in fossil-fueled Texas (to $176 billion).

So what accounts for these responses to such a major existential threat and such a massive economic opportunity? California State University San Marcos psychology professor P. Wesley Schultz blames our Stone Age brain for our response to environmental threats like climate change, which is wired for self-interest and shortsightedness or, as Robert Gifford, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria wrote "our ancestors were mainly concerned with their immediate band, immediate dangers, exploitable resources and the present time." Sound familiar?

Professor Schultz is hopeful however, noting, "We're still here. That's a credit to a thousand generations of our ancestors. We're teachable, but we have to use our newer brain."

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The saddest thing about the deer-in-the-headlights analogy is that we could easily leap out of the way and have a very prosperous future if we challenge our Neanderthal brains and act now. Or we could take a page from India's apparent exit strategy and start investing in real estate on Mars. Either way, those headlights are getting a lot closer.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. He is also the president of Seventh Generation Advisors and co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.