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How Fearmongering Over Terrorism Is Endangering American Communities

Despite the far greater danger from natural disasters caused by climate change, politicians overspend on "fighting terrorism" while slashing funds from FEMA.

In a world ruled by reason and evidence, we'd carefully weigh the potential costs – in both human and economic terms – associated with various threats, and allocate our scarce resources to mitigate them accordingly.

But risk perception isn't a rational endeavor. Sometimes moderate risks take shape as vicious monsters in the public's imagination, while far greater threats are dismissed, out of sight and out of mind. Most of us don't think twice before undertaking the relatively dangerous endeavor of getting into a car and driving across town, but after every serious shark attack, rare as they are, beaches tend to empty. Much of this skewed perception is driven by the media, which get big ratings and lots of pageviews from shark attacks but don't see much interest in fatal car crashes.

One would be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of how skewed perceptions of potential threats lead to profoundly irrational policy than the government's responses to acts of terrorism and the fallout from human-induced climate change. Washington has shifted an enormous amount of funding from the latter to the former, and the tragic irony is that those skewed priorities will continue to get Americans killed.

Last year, the National Academy of scientists surveyed 1,372 climate researchers and found that 98 percent of them believe human activities are changing our climate (one has to presume the other 2 percent are working for Exxon). For those of us who aren't gullible enough to buy into wild conspiracy theories about climatologists fudging their data in order to push a socialist agenda on an unsuspecting world, the risks are very real. According to Scientific American , “A host of studies, including a recent one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have shown that global warming is already worse than predicted even a few years ago. The only question is: Will it be catastrophic or not?”

While no single weather event can be attributed directly to anthropogenic global warming, the dramatic increase in extreme weather events is consistent with the models. "Most people thought that the risks were going to be for certain species and poor people,” Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider told the scientific journal. “But all of a sudden the European heat wave of 2003 comes along and kills 50,000, [Hurricane] Katrina comes along and there's a lot of data about the increased intensity of droughts and floods. Plus, the dramatic melting of Greenland that nobody can explain certainly has to increase your concern...Everywhere we looked, there was evidence that what was believed to be likely has happened. Nature has been cooperating with [climate change] theory unfortunately."

Last year, 15 Americans were killed in acts of terror. That's worldwide. Here at home, 33 Americans – more than twice as many – succumbed to fatal dog bites. And 19 died last year after being struck by lightning. In fact, as I noted back in 2006, American deaths from terror attacks outpaced those from lightning strikes in only one of the 10 years prior to the invasion of Iraq – 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks.

Statistically, terrorism is a modest threat. While scientists cannot say precisely what the consequences of continuing inaction on climate change will be, given the potentially catastrophic results, the precautionary principle should obtain. Even as we continue to ignore the underlying causes, one would think we might all agree that at least preparing for the consequences of worsening hurricanes, floods and fires is the intelligent thing to do.

Yet as National Public Radio's Marketplace discovered, billions in dollars have been shifted away from disaster relief since 9/11, dedicated instead to counter-terrorism. “In the last decade the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $36 billion to states to buy special equipment like decon suits and chem labs and also to do training in counter-terrorism,” according to the report, “but the money didn't buy more personnel. Local budget cuts … [actually] made emergency management departments smaller.”

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