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May 2006

Terrorism and climate change

Susi Moser
Susi Moser. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Polls consistently show that Americans tend to see terrorism as a far greater threat than climate change, even though many experts view our changing climate as one of the greatest challenges to civilization. At a recent ISSE coffee talk, “Climate and Terrorism: Commonalities and Differences in Societal Response,” ISSE’s Susi Moser raised some thought-provoking comparisons between the two threats and why they are perceived so differently.

Terrorism, she explained, evokes fear partly because Americans have been able to conceive of its impacts clearly since the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. In addition, the “war against terrorism” is portrayed as an archetypal “us versus them” story—an identifiable conflict between the United States and violent extremists.

“It’s a very clear story that deeply resonates,” Susi said. “It is almost completely contrary, in that respect, to climate change.”

Americans generally are less concerned over climate change because the threat is more difficult to imagine, with the most severe impacts appearing to be far in the future and in faraway places, she explained. The public also still assumes that scientists are split over whether climate change actually poses a threat.

“The one thing that has really settled into the public’s perception is that the scientific community is deeply divided,” she said.

Susi blamed the misconception partly on the media, which tend to try to balance stories about climate change with quotes from skeptics. But she also blamed scientists for failing to adequately communicate the threat. “As scientists, we’ve learned to couch everything in terms of, ‘We’re not certain yet.’ As soon as we’ve done that, we’ve given the public permission to stop listening,” she said.

Despite such differences, Susi explained that risk assessment processes for climate change and terrorism actually have many commonalities. In both cases, researchers are using sophisticated computer models to run scenarios, focus on vulnerabilities, and address uncertainties. They increasingly move their focus from global scenarios to regional and local impacts and contexts.

Also in both cases, the public appears to be pessimistic about the federal government’s ability to ward off major impacts. While Americans initially supported the government’s aggressive response to terrorism and the alleged threat from weapons of mass destruction even with uncertain intelligence, they are increasingly unsure whether the response has made the country safer. By contrast, the public accepted federal hesitation on climate change because of uncertainties about the science, but it is now increasingly impatient for action.

As concerns about climate change have grown over the last few years, a growing number of public policy experts, such as former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and British science adviser Sir David King, are drawing comparisons between climate change and terrorism. “You see the two being linked together,” Susi said. “People warn that climate change is as serious or more serious a threat than terrorism.”

Susi suggested that climate change communicators may want to take lessons from communications about terrorism. For example, the language of empowerment appears to work better than simple appeals to fear. “Without specific instructions on what to do about the threat,” she said, “without giving people a sense that they can do something, and that the suggested action actually solves the problem, people only end up ­controlling their fears, not the danger.

• by David Hosansky

In this issue...

Notes from the field: Turbulence and pollution

Terrorism and climate change

New program is a star

Peter Gilman wins Hale Prize

At the helm of ESSL

New Digital Image Library

Just One Look


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