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Climate change, not terrorism, is the world's biggest threat

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The world lives in fear, just as Islamic State intends. Actively or passively, many wonder when that next Islamist bomb is going to find us. But is this fear justified? Several authorities think not, but they're very much in the minority.

Take Gwynne Dyer, for example, a London-based Canadian who writes regularly and knowledgeably about world issues. Mr. Dyer says out loud things many of us aren't ready to say. Last year he published a book with the telltale title Don't Panic: ISIS, Terror, and Today's Middle East, and recently wrote a column with the same message. In it he comes close to trivializing the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium -- "a couple of bombs that killed 34 people." We're failing, he insists, to distinguish between "what is truly dangerous and what is only dramatic and frightening."

"Terrorism is a statistically insignificant risk," he asserts. People "are in much greater danger of dying from a fall in the bath than of dying in a terrorist attack." Despite the invariable over-the-top rhetoric of politicians, "Belgium's freedom is not at risk," he concludes. "Terrorists are not an existential threat. They are a lethal nuisance, but no more than a nuisance."

Well, try telling that to the families of the 34 dead. Or their counterparts in every other place where Islamist terrorism has indeed struck. Doesn't it sound inhumanly callous? Yet the data is unquestionably accurate, even if less familiar than it deserves to be.

Last June, the Toronto Star's national security reporter, Michelle Shephard, cited a CSIS briefing note that made the same statistical point. In the past 15 years, it reported, 59 per cent of lone-wolf attacks in Canada were ideologically motivated not by Islamists at all but by the white-supremacist movement. Nearly three-fifths of them! Who knew?

It must mean that all those security "experts" on the media who unfailingly identify Islamists as the perpetrators of the latest outrage are often completely out to lunch. And when certain media themselves further scapegoat all Muslims by automatically blaming Muslim extremists for the latest terrorist attack, scaring the bejeebers out of us and increasing hostility to Muslims in general, they too are mostly wrong. Shouldn't we know and care?

Well, some of us do. Just recently, in his remarkable interview in The Atlantic magazine, President Barack Obama made exactly the same point as Mr. Dyer. Seems that Mr. Obama regularly reminds his staff that fear of Islamist terrorism is blown out of all proportion, and that American have more to fear from falling in their bathtubs than from a terrorist attack. Those diabolical bathtubs again! Thank heavens for showers.

Bad luck for Mr. Obama that his comment appeared on the eve of the Brussels bombings. But his perspective is precisely why he will one day be counted among America's greatest presidents -- cool, rational, thoughtful (at least in some critical areas) -- and why he's so mistrusted by so many Americans for being too cool, rational and thoughtful. Americans, as both Hillary Clinton and all the Republicans demonstrate so faithfully, prefer war-war to jaw-jaw.

Nick Kristof, a New York Times columnist, pursued the President's statement to determine if it was accurate. It was. Mr. Kristof found that 464 people drowned in bathtubs in America in 2013, while 17 were killed by terrorists in 2014. "That's not an argument for relaxing vigilance," he concludes, "but it is an argument for addressing global challenges a little more rationally."

Mr. Kristof, who no doubt would be a devout Leaper if he lived in Canada, goes on to note that "Brussels survived the March 22 terrorist attacks but it may not survive climate change," since much of the city is less than 30 metres above sea level.

Mr. Kristof cites the following terrifying statement from the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change: "The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far." "Catastrophic climate change" sounds fairly serious, eh? This is something really to fear. Yet many commentators have dismissed the relatively mainstream Leap Manifesto as some crazed left-wing statement that will permanently marginalize the NDP, which hasn't even adopted it.

There's yet another frightening implication of these terrorism data. What do we know, what do our leaders or the media tell us, about all those terrorist attacks in Canada in the past 15 years ideologically motivated not by Islamists at all but by violent white supremacists? Or their fanatical counterparts in the rest of the world? Sure, we know Norway's Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people, and the American Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168.

Who are these other non-Islamist terrorists of the fanatical right? Does CSIS or the Mounties know? Are they surveilled, caught, prosecuted? Why do we hear so little about them? Presumably they're busily terrorizing Muslims, Jews, blacks, women of all backgrounds, maybe abortion providers. Yet in public terms they may as well not exist.

After all, it's so much simpler to know nothing, remain afraid, and blame "Muslims." But luckily for us, some truth-tellers won't remain silent.

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Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/miguel_discart_vrac/25996680045/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47694114">Wikimedia Commons

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