Paul Holmes

In the first few years of the 21st century, America and the world face two major threats to their future security and prosperity.

In the first few years of the 21st century, America and the world face two major threats to their future security and prosperity.

No excuse for US' dormancy in addressing the change in global climate as a major risk

The first is the rising tide of international terrorism, the ability of a small but fanatical minority of the world's population to inflict intolerable harm on the majority; the second is global climate change.

Any rational analysis would show the latter to be considerably more dangerous - in terms of the total number of lives at stake and the ultimate consequences for civilization - than the former. But even if you believe the opposite is true, the contrast between the Bush administration's response to the first crisis (urgent action) and the second (utter paralysis) is striking.

(I know there are some people who still don't believe global warming is happening or that human activity is its primary cause. I also know there are some who believe Israel was responsible for the World Trade Center attack. I'm not sure which group deserves to be taken less seriously.)

It would take an observer far less cynical than I to discount the role of corporate lobbyists in the administration's response to global warming. The effort in recent weeks to undermine British Prime Minister Tony Blair's G8 commitment to slowing climate change gives the impression once again that executives at ExxonMobil are running US policy on environmental issues.

But politics alone cannot explain why terrorism gets so much more attention - in the policy realm, in the media, in the blogosphere, among the citizenry as a whole - than global warming. For a credible explanation, we need to turn to the work of risk communications experts like Peter Sandman of Rutgers University and remind ourselves of a truth about the perception of risk.

It was Sandman who coined the equation that risk equals hazard and outrage. More than a decade ago, Sandman made the point that, if you make a list of problems in terms of how many people they kill each year, and then list them again in terms of how alarming they are to the general public, your two lists will look very different.

That's because the public's perception of risk is dependent upon hazard (the "real" risk) and outrage, and outrage is fueled by several factors: A risk assumed voluntarily causes less outrage than one that is imposed. Natural risks provoke less outrage than industrial risks. Chronic problems are less outrageous than catastrophic problems. Risks that an individual can control are perceived differently than risks controlled by others.

Using Sandman's risk assessment tools, it's easy to see why we deem the threat of terrorism more serious than that of global warming. That explains our continued inaction, but it doesn't excuse it.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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