Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Which is scarier: Terrorism or Climate Change?

Are the British public becoming scared of Climate Change? A recent Yougov survey1 indicated that one couple in seven were reluctant to have children because they were concerned about the future of the world. Apparently, of this group who were polled online, 70% cited terrorism, 58% immigration, and 38% Climate Change as a contributory reason.

Quite apart from the fact that it's always wise to take this sort of survey result with a pinch of salt, I find the results a little perplexing. As a former mathematician, I find perceptions of risk interesting, as I can tell you precisely the chance of rolling 10 sixes on a dice in a row (1 in 60,466,176), which is roughly the same chance as being the next person in the UK to be struck by lightning. But how can we balance these highly unlikely events in any meaningful way? The chance of being directly involved in a terrorist incident is actually very low in most Western countries2. Just compare the number of deaths in the tragic event of 9/11 with the number of homicides or road accidents in the USA in the same year, and you'll wonder why the US President didn't start bombing the gun makers or General Motors. Nonetheless, the fear of random - and at times inexplicable - events can be very real.

To give the survey its due, Yougov's client, the Mental Health Foundation, were using the results to demonstrate how rising anxiety and general feeling of helplessness was leading to possibly irrational decision-making. Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Reddy was quoted as saying "As social animals, we are sensitive to dangers from other humans that are intentional, such as terrorism. Accidental dangers, such as natural disasters, fail to motivate us in the same way."

I am not sure whether Dr Reddy would place Climate Change into the natural disaster category or not. Hopefully it is not intentional (although I might point an accusing finger at some politicians for behaving as if they didn't really care whether it is happening or not), but equally, it is generally accepted to be humanly induced. So are the reluctant parents behaving rationally by choosing not to bring children into a world that maybe severely affected by Climate Change?

Here the answer is less clear cut. There is a very small chance that we may reach a tipping point that leads to unchecked and major climate changes - a 5-10°C temperature rise (with massive sea level rises) or the "switching off" of the North Atlantic conveyor system (the Gulf Stream rendering parts of Northern Europe uninhabitable). But based on IPCC predictions and fairly firm science, a 2-3°C temperature rise over the forthcoming century is manageable, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in fully developed countries such as Britain. Yes, there may be famines and floods, but they will largely affect developing nations, and not the middle class web users being polled by Yougov. So are people over-estimating the risk of the big events, or basing their choice on a less rational fear of a smaller shift in climate?

But is there a second, almost hidden, moral issue: is it right to bring more people into a world that cannot really meet adequately the material needs of its current 6 billion inhabitants without creating major environmental problems, such as Climate Change? Or to put it in more biological and less social terms, by holding back from starting a family, are couples already instinctively starting a mechanism that is common in nature of reducing population sizes when times look tough? Big questions, and perhaps ones that I will return to in another blog.

1Poll of 2,012 adults online by Yougov, for the Mental Health Foundation, as reported by BBC News on Monday, 8 October 2007.

2Terrorism (and its reporting in an era of 24 hour news) tends to have a much wider impact than those directly affected. For example, we can almost all remember where we were when we first saw a news report of the 9/11 atrocity, and I, for one, was forced to cancel a planned meeting in London due to the suspension of public transport on the day of the 7/7 London terrorist attacks.


ian said...

By coincidence, Gideon Rachman of the FT was looking at some of the same ideas on risk in Tuesday's FT. He also drew attention to the public (and US Government's) over-perception of the terrorist risk. Like you, he identified that US citizens currently (based on a period including the 9/11 attacks) have around a 1 in 9,000 chance of dying in a road accident, a 1 in 18,000 chance of being murdered and a 1 in 500,000 chance of being killed by terrorism. And yet the US Department for Homeland Security is the 3rd largest in the US with 200,000 federal employees.

As a cyclist, I might also point out that more people in Britain (148) were killed cycling in 2005 than in the 7/7 Underground attacks (52), yet one of the public responses to those attacks was for more people to cycle in central London, rather than to take the tube.

He too makes a brief comparison between the policy challenges between global warming and terrorism and suggests that, in the long run, global warming may be a bigger threat to the US than global terrorism. But neither of you attempt to put a firm number on the numbers of people dying (or likely to die) from global warming, which is surely the key number before you can assess whether the "childless couples" are behaving rationally?

EnergyDon said...

I was thinking about your final comment about "the numbers of people dying (or likely to die) from global warming" and the difficultiy in putting a firm number on it. Essentially I don't think we can; people will be killed by floods, by famine, or by fighting for land, all of which will have been at least partly due to global climate change. Indeed, we could almost certainly count some of the victims of hurricanes or typhoons, as there's some evidence that they have been intensified by sea temperature rises. But I wouldn't want to put a number on it...it might be really scary!!!