US Public Worried about ISIL, Putin– But Climate Change is Real Challenge

By Juan Cole

In a new Pew/ USA Today poll, the American public shows itself alarmed by the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in northern Iraq and Syria as a threat to US security, finding it more threatening even than Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has risen on the villain scale quite a lot. Iran is seen as less menacing, as is North Korea. The Israel-Palestinian struggle is seen as a threat to the US by a little over half. More Americans still think the US is doing too much as the world’s policeman, but those who think it is doing too little have greatly increased in number, especially among Republicans.


But almost no Republicans think Global Warming is a threat, and only slightly more than a majority of Democrats do. In short, the US public is again being misled by its media and politicians as to the true shape of the world, and is likely to suffer pretty badly for this ignorance.

Americans’ concern about the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” is justified. It is an extremely nasty and vicious organization, and it has made significant advances this summer in northern Iraq. The public largely supports giving US close air support to Kurdish and Iraqi military forces against it.


But it seems likely that the public is not being given a sense of proportion about the region. Conservative pro-American monarchies in the Middle East include Morocco, Jordan, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Secular republics that are non-NATO allies or at least relatively friendly toward the US include Algeria, Egypt and Yemen (though Yemen has local militant movements not under government control). Governments of the mild religious right have risen in Tunisia and Turkey but they are pro-American (Turkey is a NATO ally). Lebanon is hard to categorize– its government is pro-American but it includes Hizbullah which is not. It is not clear how much of the militia faction-fighting in Libya is a security threat to the US, and apparently people have been relatively unconcerned by the Syrian civil war until recently.

Of the some 400 million people in the Middle East, only a fraction live under IS — half of what’s left of Aleppo, the small city of Raqqa, Mosul and some other Iraqi cities. Given refugee flows (at least a fourth of Mosul fled), I shouldn’t imagine it is more than five or six million. It would be alarming if a militant group took over Tennessee or Wisconsin, but it is not as if those states bulk very large in a US of some 314 million. Given how vicious IS is, I don’t think it should be allowed to keep its conquests, and I think the international community can and should coordinate with local actors to push it back. In a way, IS is made for concerted United Nations action, since it alarms all the members of the Security Council.

But while the Ukraine conflict is concerning, it is a struggle between Russia and the European Union for a sphere of influence and therefore is largely a regional matter. It is hard to see how it poses a threat to the US or requires an intervention beyond tools such as sanctions (which have clearly had some effect in restraining Russia, though they haven’t been completely successful).

Iran is not a threat to the US. It is a country of some 75 million with a small conventional army that hasn’t invaded a neighbor for a century and a half and has a military budget between that of Norway and Singapore. It was never more than a bogeyman wielded by right wing US politicians to scare the people. The government of President Hassan Rouhani is clearly trying to reach a new modus vivendi with the US. The public is right to demote it further as a menace given the current negotiations.

North Korea is also not a threat to the US. Interestingly, China is seen by fewer Americans as a menace, presumably because Secretary of State John Kerry has good relations with Beijing and has played down the “pivot to Asia” rhetoric, some of which was aimed at preparing the way to an effort to contain China.

None of these threats is very serious for the actual lives lived by most Americans.

But Global Warming (what experts call Climate Change) is a dire threat to the health and well-being of millions of Americans. In the coming decades it will do trillions of dollars of damage to the American economy. Imagine what the city of Miami is worth; but much of it is doomed . We have locked in a four foot sea level rise over the next 80 years or so. But that is an average. In some places it will be higher (the ocean is not smooth). There will be episodes of rapid rise and storm surges leading to substantial coastal flooding for some towns and cities.

You are much more likely to die falling in the bathtub or being struck by lighting than to be killed by terrorists or by Vladimir Putin, much less by Hassan Rouhani of Iran. But Americans’ health and well-being is directly and powerfully threatened by global warming.

What to do about IS is not completely clear (President Obama has gotten into trouble for saying that he doesn’t yet have a policy for dealing with it in Syria, which actually was his way of walking back the assumption in the US press that he intends to bomb Syria unilaterally). Over time an approach will be crafted.

What to do about global warming is obvious. Stop spewing 34 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that prevents the sun’s heat from radiating back out into space from the earth’s surface. The more you have in the atmosphere, the hotter it is guaranteed to become over time. We’ve gone from 270 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the 18th century before the industrial revolution to over 400 parts per million today. We crossed that 400 ppm line just this year. There should have been urgent summits and hand wringing on Capitol Hill and massive urban demonstrations.

Our press and our politicians are screwing us over. We still take our cues from our two parties and from corporate mass media. Both are in effect lying to us on the whole, by not being shrill over the real problems we face. American political leaders and American television anchors are encouraging us to hold a dance party on the deck of the Titanic.

The last time carbon dioxide levels spiked the way we are making them spike today, in the Eocene epoch 50 million years ago, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Carbon dioxide goes into the oceans, making them acidic and killing off much sea life. Lots of humans live on fish; there won’t be any for many of them. It was tropical everywhere, with no surface ice. There was a third less land mass above the waters. There is some evidence of massive storms, some lasting thousands of years over the same area. Past eras like the Eocene reinforce the conclusions reached by climate modelers. Modeling can err, if the inputs are mistaken. But History does not lie. C02 levels matter for the health of the earth. We have a young species, only about 150,000 years old, and it is adapted to a relatively cool world. Can it survive another Paleocene-Eocene Climate Maximum?

We are locked in to going up by 4 degrees F. (scientists in the US should stop using Centigrade, which seems to downplay the problem to an American audience). There is no escaping it. But whether we go on up to a 9 degrees F. average rise in surface temperatures is up to us. To this generation. We could go to solar and wind as energy sources in a crash Manhattan Project-style effort over the next 20 years. We’d actually save money in the long run if we do it, not to mention averting some of the worst effects of global warming (loss of coasts, droughts, wild fires, species lost, extreme weather). We’d also free ourselves and our allies of dependence on foreign oil and gas. If you own a house and will be in it at least ten years, you’re crazy if you don’t put up solar panels and get an electric car or plug-in hybrid. At current prices you’d pay off both in 6 or 7 years and ever after you get free fuel. I did this and figure my household has avoided 3 metric tons of C02 so far this year. More extensive measures are needed that only governments (municipal, county, state and federal) can implement. But American homeowners can make an impact all by themselves. You get a $7500 tax break on the panels and another one on the auto. Every American produces on average 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, more per capita than any other major industrialized country in the world. We have met the terrorists, and they are us.


New York University: “A Window Into Climate Change Comes to Mercer Street”

21 Responses

  1. Although it’s outside your purview, I wish that, instead of only mildly scoffing at the “Putin threat,” you would do a walk-through of the development of the Ukraine crisis. In it I hope you might give some place, to the question of Russia’s legitimate security concerns and the foolish expansion of NATO, the question of rotating oligarchic rule in the Ukraine, and the historically divided character of the Ukrainian polity. The MSM has been astonishing indifferent to these and other questions, preferring a collage of shallow impressions of demonstrations and airline disasters. It seems very much like we’re witnessing a repeat of the start-up of the Cold War, even though it should be possible with Internet resources to thwart the resurrection of the Russian bear (which one of my idiotic Senators – supposedly the least idiotic – recently referred to).

    • Nato expanded because the eastern European countries desperately wanted to join out of fear of Russian domination. After looking at Ukraine the past couple of months, can you really blame their anxiety.

      Russia is the only country in the world that seems to require a buffer. If I were to say we need to dominate the Mexican government so we can have a buffer between Honduras and us, you would think I was a lunatic. Yes, it is true that Napolean and Hitler did invade Russia, that was over 60 years ago. There is no European threat to Russia. In fact there is not threat to Russia at all.

      And we always talk about Ukraine being a buffer as if the feelings of those people don’t matter at all. They have a right to a better future and they chose that future during the Madden protests. That was a widespread movement, supported by the people not foreign powers.

      If you look at the economic growth of those Eastern European countries that broke free of Russian influence, they are prospering. Ukraine is not, however, and it will never have a decent future unless it liberates itself from Russia.

      They have a right to join NATO if they so choose. They have a right to join the European Union if they choose. They have the right to join the Russian custom’s union if they choose. It is their choice, not Russia’s not the USA’s.

      Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s advance into Sudetenland. In that time Hitler, was interested in protecting ethnic Germans, or so he said. He sent over Nazi thugs and then when the Czech government resisted he took over some of the country, then he took over the non-German part.

      Any by the way the oligarchic rule you mentioned, all with the of Yushchenko and the current president Poroshenko were all ethnic Russians who had a cozy relationship with Russia.

      And another fact you might consider, that even in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk) the percentage of ethnic Ukrainians is 60%. Another fact you might consider that although the Ukrainian government is responsible for some civilian deaths in eastern Ukraine, the overwhelming number of kidnappings, torture, and murder of civilians is done by the pro-Russian terrorists.

      So when you call you senator an idiot you should check your mirror first.

      • “If I were to say we need to dominate the Mexican government so we can have a buffer between Honduras and us, you would think I was a lunatic.”

        Maybe I would, but such ideas have been within mainstream US thinking on Latin America for 191 years. Just one example: President Reagan famously remarked that the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was “only 2,000 miles from the Texas border, a clear national security threat”. [Radio Address, 1987-09-12]

  2. It’s as if the Rise in Temperature were Debt Equity and some multi-national corporation’s Lawyers want the R & D department to work on fudging the numbers instead of actually mitigating the problem from destroying the customer base.

  3. America has a whole stew of supposedly high quality universities.
    These schools such as the ivy league schools and Stanford and MIT and a few others select what are apparently the highest quality of high school graduates in the country,
    The graduates of these elite universities often go on to high paying jobs and or write best selling books about how to be a high achiever.
    I was wondering today. Do any of them really know anything important at all? I have very little first hand experience knowing what type of people make up the legal and economic elite of America.
    I see them on TV a lot. I read about them a lot. But I have never read or watched TV with them let alone gone out with them on one of their yachts.
    When the number of graduates of these elite schools is totaled up it would be a quite high number. I imagine that we are talking about at least 25,000 graduates each year.
    What do they think about America? Do they think that it is royally screwed up? If not what does that say about them?
    If they do think that America is royally screwed up do they ever wonder what in the world is going wrong?
    The people who made it in to these schools were clearly better at answering the questions that they were asked on tests than I was. So they must have been better abstract thinkers than I was around the age of 20.
    Yet when one looks at what problems people in the USA seem threatened by it seems to me that one of two conclusions is in order. One possibility is that all of these brilliant thinkers have had no influence on the vast majority of people who did not go to school with them. A second possibility is that leadership brilliance that these schools claim that they endow has been used to move themselves to higher levels achievement rather than the nation to higher levels of achievement. If that was the case were they all in on it or only a portion of them? If was not all of them did those who were not in on the joke that was being played on the rest of us realize what was going on?
    If not why not? They are supposed to be brilliant? If they did what did they do to stop it? If they tried but were unsuccessful was it because there were to few of them? Or were there enough of them they were just not smart enough to get the job done? Is there defense that those who were not operating with good faith were outsmarted by those who were?
    I do not understand how a nation can fear a bigot on the other side of the planet more than it can fear a bigot in the back yard. Do the graduates of our elite universities have a defense for the level of achievement that they have attained? Someone explain it to me.

    • Curt…good question…my take on it is that in a nation with over 300 million…with say 15 million are wealthy enough to send their kids to top schools at close to 70k per year,there are enough smart ones to get into those schools…then they take on financial help reall smart kids from the rest of the population…so you end up with maybe 50k yearly grads…divide them into science medicine law engineering and finance…as human nature takes hold thess grads to to work to make as much money as they order to join the 15 million. Who have like 95 per cent of the wealth..with few exceptions..and those good souls are to few to make any real impression …it’s really up to the rest of the people to make it work…but as it is they are overworked and over stressed just trying to make a living …and so it goes

    • Students at “elite” schools (however defined) have a variety of opinions about, and interest levels in, such things. Certainly not all of them are geniuses, and being a genius is no substitute for actual study–in this case, of climate change etc.

    • The smart guys decided it would be more profitable to have a country in which there is no real concept of public good. So they destroyed it, and now reap truly vast financial rewards. They figure to have private islands to flee to before the consequences overwhelm their fellow citizens.

      Now as to how usefully smart they are, imagine if this bunch had been the ones running things in the ’30s and ’40s. Pretty scary.

  4. How easy it would be for the MSM and the politicians to convert the global warming threat in to an “us against them” threat, “them” being any foreign political entity that can be tagged as a party that contributes to “global warming damage to the USA”.

    As Prof Cole points out, the public is quite malleable when it comes it imagining that distant localized events could be a direct security threat to Americans, i.e. kill us right on US soil.

    The US is now an octopus like creature with a world wide network of.pain receptors. Events in almost any part of the world can trigger our pain and cause a response, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Venezuela, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, lots of African countries, China, to name some well known locations.

    To put it in harsh terms, we are bulking up to take on global warming as an external threat to the US, which will be dealt with the only way we know how, military violence.

    • Here’s a slightly dated version of our warfighters’ playbook on how they plan to link up, “interoperate,” with other “militaries” across the planet to defeat all those environmental threats, keep us mopes under control, and open up new markets for our inversion- undertaking US corporations. That list would now be extended to include not just the arms industry, but purveyors of genetically modified seeds and civil engineering firms and makers of heavy earthmoving equipment and probably toilet paper and paper towel manufacturers too: link to

    • The pain receptor analogy is a good description of our elites’ conversion of global exploitation into the citizenry’s global paranoia.

      However, paranoia seems to be most virulent when the enemy has a face we can hate. Even epidemics have a face; the disease-carrying foreigners we must stop before they contaminate our land. This is the problem with global warming, because our own country is the most responsible for the economic model driving the process. We met the enemy, he is us, so we make up other enemies instead.

      And that leads to the other problem; all our fantasy enemies in the above survey allow us to imagine solutions without sacrifice by anyone we likely know… since we never estimate the cost of future wars accurately. The jobs and land rights created by fossil fuels have come to be an island of stability in late capitalism, viewed as sacred entitlements, so the fact that alternative energy will create new jobs to replace those hardly matters; the ones who scream loudest and with the best connections to hold onto what they have count more.

    • I should have mentioned the doctrine that supports our responses to those pains, the doctrine of limited sovereignty. Basically: The US reserves the right to violate the sovereignty of other nations when US interests are in any way threatened, where interests can range from a direct attack on the US, to such things as trade, energy policy, political gain etc. Other countries have no right to adapt a similar doctrine, and the US looks unfavorably on any attempt to employ it, the exception being when such action is an supports US objectives.

      Exceptionalism at work.

  5. Most Americans are too poor to even think about putting solar panels on their home, much less buy a new environmentally friendly car. Tax breaks don’t mean much when almost half of Americans don’t make enough money to pay any taxes anyway.

  6. One reason why China has to be handled more carefully than a few years ago is that they’re finally coming around on global warming. If Europe, the U.S. and China are reasonably working together to limit CO2 emissions and rapidly building up alternative energy infrastructure, that is probably enough to bring most countries along.

    As long as one remains realistic about the issue while also limiting where possible Russian energy games, the Ukrainian issue could have a profound impact on energy policies in either direction and needs to be handled right. As for ISIL, it’s important to keep them away from oil fields as much as possible. If the world economy crashes because there’s neither enough alternative energy or enough fossil fuels or both to sustain energy needs, that does considerable harm to dealing with global warming. One needs a reasonably healthy, functioning economy to build up alternative energy.

    Of course, Tea Party Republicans are bent on sabotaging alternative energy as much as possible, enough reason on that basis alone to reduce their numbers in Congress.

  7. The survey choices above show how depressingly shallow Americans are about the outside world. It’s like looking at Nielsen ratings, with a constant turnover of new shows that are really copies of old shows. I’d like to say the decline in the fantasy of an Iranian threat is good news, but I can see it’s only getting crowded out by sexier threats. Note that Shia extremism always is traced right back to the Iranian state by our indoctrinators, but Sunni extremism is only traced back to a black box of “those crazy Moslems”; thus protecting the oil-rich Gulf elites who fund both extremism/terrorism and much of America’s financial sector. We can’t face that contradiction, or the economic sacrifices we’d have to make if we treated the Sauds as an enemy.

  8. There is a danger in promoting a perspective that is simply not available to the majority. Societies of whatever size, from family to nation, are inevitably divided between ‘leaders’ and those led, whatever the definitions, from warrior to wealth. What creates stability in society is a stable and influential middle class. For the last 50 years or so the Western middle classes have been squeezed, a few have scrambled up into wealth but the majority have slipped down into debt. Debt is slavery. Slaves have no rights and little control of their lives beyond choosing who they mate. All that is available when circumstances become too extreme is revolution. It is against the prospect of that tidal wave that Western freedoms are being eroded and police forces are armed with sophisticated anti-personnel weapons, and imbued with confrontational attitudes to the public it was once their career choice to serve. Russia, China, Iran and so on are really irrelevant to this, except in providing a constant distraction from what is actually going on. Snowden’s revelations provided a glimpse but the real issue is less what NSA and others are doing but why they are doing it. I doubt there is a practical solution since the descent of the middle classes into debt/slavery and political impotence looks irreversible. In 1973 the polymath Jacob Bronowski wrote a book and TV series titled The Ascent of Man. I remember the concept gave me pause at the time. Perhaps climate change will cleanse the stables. “…a dance party on the deck of the Titanic”. Why not? At least there is some dignity to it.

  9. Climate change will start to be taken seriously maybe once the stress on agriculture starts to hit Americans in the pocket book in the form of soaring food costs. There is a direct link between climate change and the Arab Spring, and climate change and the Syrian civil war: in the first instance it is more than likely that extreme drought in Russia several years ago led to a rise in wheat prices, fueling inflation and hardship in north Africa and the Near East that depends on Russia in part for wheat supply. Drought hit Syrian farmers very hard, as Professor Cole has noted in several posts, leading in no small part to the current conflict there. Here in the western US drought is playing havoc with California produce and cattle. Maybe it will not be with the current California drought, but eventually as warming does serious damage to agriculture and prices rise, people will start to make the connection. But by then, I suspect, we grey temple prophets of doom will all be dead and the hour will be too late.

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