Be afraid. That was the clear message of the GOP nominating convention this week. Far from Reagan's morning in America, we're now living in night of the Purge. And GOP nominee Donald Trump, giving the longest acceptance speech in history, focused on the need for more "law and order." In his world, dangerous immigrants are waiting around every corner.
There are of course real dangers in the world, but are we worried about the right things? Yes and no. We're worried about a very many things these days. Gallup polls show that half of Americans say they are "very" or "somewhat" worried that "you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism." But at the same time, Gallup says, 64% of us are worried a "great deal" or "fair amount" about global warming.
But if you listened to this week's convention, we should only focus on terrorism, immigration, and home invasions. This general level of fear has seeped into the mainstream. A couple of days ago, a DJ on the popular New York radio station WPLJ (95.5) said that it seems anyone can get shot at any time. That's technically true, but random shootings are incredibly rare. Yes, it could happen to anyone, but you could also get hit by lightning, win the lottery, or die in a commercial plane crash (yes, I can get nervous when a plane bounces around...but I know it's irrational since the drive to the airport was much more dangerous).
There are well-documented reasons that we humans are fearful of the wrong things (from an odds perspective). One of the best known of the cognitive biases is something called the "availability heuristic." We reach into our brains to find readily available examples, and we consider those much more common than they are. So when the news covers basically every plane crash and every mass shooting in the world, we can easily picture how we'd be next.
Politicians have taken advantage of this natural bias forever. They give us vivid personal examples of a situation, even if they demonstrate a rare phenomenon. Presidents always bring citizens with compelling stories to their state of the union speeches. Look at that single mom over there that started a successful business because of my policies. Trump is no slouch on this front. Taking advantage of our biases, last night he talked the tragic story of a young woman killed by an illegal immigrant. He just left out the part about it not a violent crime, but a drunk driving accident.
But let's go back to our general fear of terrorism. It's a classic case of innumeracy - the lack of numbers sense where small, but emotionally vivid examples, well, trump reality. That Gallup poll is amazing - for 50% of us to think that terrorism will personally touch our families is truly bizarre.
The number of people killed by violent jihadists in the US since 2001 is roughly 100. But let's triple that if we think it's too low. Those 300 are roughly 0.0001% of more than 300 million Americans. But we are really not good with numbers so we inflate the scary extremes in our minds.
Of course terrorism and national security have some unique aspects as risks go. The risks can jump quickly if, say, unstable people get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction. That's also a remote possibility, but it is possible. So obviously we do have to be very vigilant.
But if we go off of emotions only, and not include numbers and risk, we will pursue bad policies and ignore other massive and much more likely risks. I'm no security expert, so perhaps my whole view on this is moot. But how about listening to General Colin Powell on the topic? A few months ago, I spoke at an energy conference that Powell keynoted as well. He spoke clearly about not "overreacting" to threats. A few hundred people have died from terrorism in 15 years, Powell said, while 30,000 people die annually from gun violence.
But clear-eyed, balanced voices seem to be on the wane, and fear is of course a powerful motivator. When you're afraid, the higher functions of your brain take a back seat turn off and you don't think rationally. That's good on some level if you need to fight a saber-tooth tiger by charging it against all reason. It sucks when electing a leader of the free world.
We need our leaders to focus on all the big and real that can impact many, many more people, such as: the economic repercussions from Brexit; tens of millions of refugees moving around the world; deep changes in technology that could eliminate millions of jobs; lack of water in many regions; and of course the existential threat of our time, climate change.
What are your odds of being impacted by climate change? Since it's already happening, how about 100%? Of course the impacts any individual faces can be hard to see clearly. When we pay higher prices for food as droughts affect agriculture, do we know it's climate change hitting our wallets? When diseases like malaria and Zika move north, do we register that it's a warming planet that make mosquitoes more comfortable where we live? When extreme weather swamps a coastline or riverbanks overflow into a town, destroying homes, does that register as a climate issue? Or do we shrug and say it's an "act of God."
Or, more to the point of the Trump fear tour, do we see how climate change has helped destabilize regions, leading to refugee crises and, yes, terrorism? The National Academy of Sciences, among others, has linked the Syrian unrest directly to drought and climate change. And the Pentagon has repeatedly tied climate change to national security.
But even without that "law and order" reason to worry, the impacts of a dangerously shifting climate are orders of magnitude more likely than a terrorist attack or random home invasion. I know we're fighting our lizard brains to get a handle on that reality, but we have to.
Oh, and by the way, building a cleaner economy is not only a risk-reduction strategy. It brings prosperity, resilience, and a healthier and safer world. The pursuit of a low-carbon world creates jobs in vast quantities also.
I've heard so little optimism this week. I only hope we can choose leaders who understand all the threats - and grasp the vast opportunities - that sit in front of us.