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Every leader said the same thing. The climate-change science is real. The need to act now is urgent. The end is nigh. "Hurricanes, floods, typhoons and droughts that were once all regarded as the acts of an invisible God are now revealed to be the visible acts of man," Britain's Gordon Brown said.

"We come here in Copenhagen because climate change poses a grave and growing danger to our people," Barack Obama said. A weak climate change deal would be "an invitation to Africa to sign a suicide pact," the Sudanese ambassador said.

And so on, times 193 countries. And then nothing.

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The Copenhagen Accord, reached after two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations, produced no binding treaty, no specific emissions-reduction targets, no plan for a carbon market, no sense of where the money for the promised $30-billion (U.S.) climate-change fund will come from or where it will be spent. On Saturday, everyone went home while the debris from the conference to prevent the planet from baking was cleared away to make room for a design and accessories show to take over the conference centre.

How do you explain the huge gap between the rhetoric and the outcome? There were dozens of theories, each credible to some degree. Certainly there was a rift between the leaders and their negotiators. The former begged for action; the latter drowned in an ocean of mistrust. They had seen it all before, starting in 1992 at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, when the industrialized countries promised to rein in greenhouse-gas emissions and help the poor countries adapt their economies and societies to a warming planet. Seventeen years of broken promises meant the negotiators arrived in Copenhagen with little hope that the climate-change meeting - the 15th - would be different.

But maybe the summit failed because there was no clear and present danger, at least not one you can see. Carbon dioxide is a clear, odourless gas. Each human is a small carbon-dioxide factory and excuse us for breathing. Yes the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic ice fields are melting in Al Gore's videos. Britain's national weather service said the current decade had the highest global temperatures on record. Just don't ask us to get worried about the Big Melt when no one we know is dying from it.

Copenhagen's dud status shows that perverse disaster psychology is alive and well - no disaster meant no action. That's unlikely to change until the climate change story has its Pearl Harbor moment, an event so catastrophic, so violent, that it instantly mobilizes entire countries. By then, of course, it may be too late.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, immediately put the United States on war footing. The economy and society were transformed virtually overnight. Detroit's car factories pumped out tanks and bombers. Millions of women worked the armaments lines while their men went to war in the Pacific and in Europe.

A similar scenario unfolded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two wars were launched. Last year, the financial crisis and the recession triggered bank bailouts, stimulus spending and liquidity injections valued at trillions of dollars around the world. April's G20 summit in London showed that countries can move with alacrity to fight a common threat.

What could climate change's Pearl Harbor look like? If you read the literature from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, it could be a sudden shift in the ocean currents - known as the ocean conveyor - that transport warm water from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere. It might be extreme bouts of El Nino (the periodic warming of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures), or La Nina (Pacific cooling), either of which could trigger catastrophic floods, droughts and other forms of extreme weather, as they have in the past.

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It might be a massive African or Asian drought that wipes out crops across several countries. The Australian drought in 2009, where rainfall in some parts of country was a mere 5 per cent to 10 per cent of historical totals, gave us a hint of the agricultural and economic devastation that one dry year can produce. Imagine the same weather pattern in a poor, densely populated country such as Pakistan. Josette Sheeran, the executive director of United Nations World Food Program, the world's biggest humanitarian agency, said hungry people do one of three things: "They riot, they migrate or they die."

The opening lines of the Copenhagen Accord read: "We underline that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We emphasize our strong political will to urgently combat climate change."

Imagine if the lines went this way instead: "We underline that al-Qaeda is one of the greatest challenges of our time ..." Or substitute "climate change" for "financial crisis" for similar effect.

The words "climate change" simply don't trigger collective fear, at least in the rich world, which thinks it can overcome any problem by throwing money at it. Until an environmental Pearl Harbor happens, climate change is likely to stay on the political and economic security sidelines. Copenhagen showed that. Some 120 leaders pleaded for "urgent" action and the message was lost for want of a body-strewn image to go with it.

Eric Reguly recently returned to Rome after two weeks in Copenhagen providing daily coverage of the climate-change conference

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