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
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
“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
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...
from the field: Turbulence and pollution
and climate change
program is a star
Gilman wins Hale Prize
the helm of ESSL
Digital Image Library
Just One Look
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