Nicholas Kristof’s Thursday New York Times column is yet another grossly timed, tone-deaf, inappropriate attempt to minimize Islamic terrorism and change the subject, “Terrorists, Tubs and Snakes.” The text box: “Brussels just survived bombings, but it could fall to climate change.”
Kristof has made a bad habit of such callous, often math-challenged columns that go to ludicrous lengths to contextualize the terrorist threat away. He has even insulted brave Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali. He’s also used terror attacks to push gun control, as he did after the Boston Marathon bombing, and after the 2011 assassinations in Tuscon.
On Thursday, he urged us to get over our "irrational" fear of terrorism and fight the real enemy: Climate change.
Are terrorists more of a threat than slippery bathtubs?
President Obama, er, slipped into hot water when The Atlantic reported that he frequently suggests to his staff that fear of terrorism is overblown, with Americans more likely to die from falls in tubs than from attacks by terrorists.
The timing was awkward, coming right before the Brussels bombings, but Obama is roughly right on his facts: 464 people drowned in America in tubs, sometimes after falls, in 2013, while 17 were killed here by terrorists in 2014 (the most recent years for which I could get figures). Of course, that’s not an argument for relaxing vigilance, for at some point terrorists will graduate from explosives to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons that could be far more devastating than even 9/11. But it is an argument for addressing global challenges a little more rationally.
The basic problem is this: The human brain evolved so that we systematically misjudge risks and how to respond to them.
On the same day as the attacks, a paper by James E. Hansen and other climate experts was released arguing that carbon emissions are transforming our world far more quickly than expected, in ways that may inundate coastal cities and cause storms more horrendous than any in modern history. The response? A yawn.
(Actually, the Times’ environmental activist reporter Justin Gillis covered it.)
To put it another way, this year’s election choices may shape coastlines 10,000 years from now. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have both mocked the idea of human-caused climate change, with Trump suggesting that it is a hoax invented by China to harm the American economy (he now says that last point was a joke).
The upshot is that Brussels survived this week’s terrorist attacks, but it may not survive climate change (much of the city is less than 100 feet above sea level).
Doesn’t it seem prudent to invest in efforts to avert not only shoe bombers but also the drowning of the world’s low-lying countries?
The reason seems to be -- how do I put this politely? -- that we evolved in ways that leave us irrational.
Unfortunately, our brains are not well adapted to most of the biggest threats we actually face in the 21st century. Warn us that climate change is destroying our planet, and only a small part of our prefrontal cortex (which worries about the future) will glimmer; then we’ll go back to worrying about snakes or their modern equivalent -- terrorists.