How Fearmongering Over Terrorism Is Endangering American Communities

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.”

Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, recently lamented the “extraordinary five-year erosion of funding for almost every important disaster response program across the two federal Cabinet level departments that have principal responsibility for improving the nation’s capacity to plan for, respond to, and recover from disasters.” 

To be specific, in the final 2011 federal budget, preparedness and response funding within the Department of Homeland Security, which contains FEMA, and the Department of Health and Human Services dropped nearly $900 million, approximately 17 percent, compared to the previous year.

Funding for hospital disaster preparedness programs, alone, has dropped approximately 35 percent over the past five years. Even larger cuts have been made to school preparedness programs, regional planning for catastrophic disasters, emergency operations centers, and disaster response training programs for public health agencies.

Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Marketplace, “If you're asking [emergency managers] who have a limited amount of time to prepare for exotic terrorist attacks, they're not going to have time to do the ordinary outreach that they need for the disasters that they will face.” She added: “We are less prepared for natural disasters. Yes.”

In August, ABC reported that FEMA had “less than $800 million in its bank account, forcing it to halt long-term projects such as rebuilding roads and schools in order to focus on the immediate needs of Hurricane Irene victims.” The emergency management agency was also forced to cut back on relief efforts for the town of Joplin, Missouri, after it was devastated by a massive tornado earlier this year.

Texas provides a good example of these perverse priorities in action. In addition to billions spent on increased border security – ostensibly a response to unauthorized immigration, but often justified as a necessary part of the broader “war on terror” -- the Houston area alone has grabbed $1 billion since 9/11 to beef up homeland security. Among the biggest beneficiaries were the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel and Bush Intercontinental Airport. But even as fires rage across the Lone Star State – fires that scientists see as additional evidence of the dangers of climate change – Reuters reported that “the Texas Forest Service faces almost $34 million in budget cuts over the next two years, roughly a third of the agency's total budget.” As Salon noted, those cuts come despite the fact that this year's budget “is not enough to cover the expense of fighting the fires currently burning across the state.”

The same penny-wise, pound-foolish dynamic can be seen at the federal level. In June, the Republican-controlled House of representatives passed a budget that slashed $1 billion from FEMA's 2012 appropriation. And just this week, Senate Republicans blocked a $7 billion emergency aid package to aid “victims of recent natural disasters like Hurricane Irene, tornadoes in the Midwest and the South and floods along the Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers.”

On the counter-terrorism side, we get a very different picture. Because it's spread across multiple agencies' budgets, the entire increase in homeland security spending since 9/11 is difficult to estimate. John Mueller and Mark Stewart, authors of Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security, crunched the numbers and came up with what they called “a very conservative estimate” of $75 billion. They then estimated, using “conventional approach to cost-effectiveness” how many attacks would have to take place in order to rationally justify the increased spending. They found that we would have had to avert 1,667 “Times Square-style attacks” each year in order to justify the expense.

The dramatic increase in spending is based on an over-hyped threat, which in turn is driven in part by defense industry lobbyists, and in part by politicians looking to be seen as “tough on terror.” In 2006, a study by Brigitte Nacos, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon and Robert Shapiro, political scientists at Columbia University, demonstrated the incentives involved. As reporter Matthew Stannard summarized, they found that three things could be expected every time the Bush administration talked up the threat of terrorism: “The media will repeat the president's remarks. Public fear of terrorism will increase. And the president's poll numbers will rise.”

Such is not the case talking about tornadoes, floods or hurricanes. That political calculus explains why, if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we get a ton of prevention to head off terror attacks and only crumbs to prepare for the far deadlier threats represented by extreme weather events.


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