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White House Says Climate Change Impacts More Americans Than Terrorism

Conservative politicians and media pundits seize on President Obama's comments about the media's fixation on reporting chaos and dysfunction.

by Matt Smith
Feb 11 2015, 5:55pm

Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Even as President Barack Obama seeks the blessing of Congress for sustained attacks on the Islamic State, he's being accused of slighting the threat of terrorism compared to the risks posed by climate change.

"It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," Obama told the news site Vox in an interview. "We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor's got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive."

Vox asked Obama whether the news "sometimes overstates the level of alarm" about terrorism, "as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease."

"If it bleeds, it leads, right?" Obama replied. "You show crime stories and you show fires, because that's what folks watch, and it's all about ratings. And, you know, the problems of terrorism and dysfunction and chaos, along with plane crashes and a few other things, that's the equivalent when it comes to covering international affairs."

Accounts of progress in battling disease or feeding more people are "not a sexy story," he added. "And climate change is one that is happening at such a broad scale and at such a complex system, it's a hard story for the media to tell on a day-to-day basis."

Pressed on the comments, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that more people will face a "direct, daily impact" from climate change or disease than terrorism.

But the US leader's conservative critics swiftly jumped on his characterization of the Paris killings in January as a random attack at a time when the Islamic State — the al Qaeda offshoot that has seized control of much of Iraq and Syria — has been beheading Western hostages and burned a captured Jordanian air force pilot alive in a cage.

"What the hell?" conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh wondered on his widely aired show. "What daily impact? What dramatic changes in people's lives is brought on by global warming? Is unemployment because of global warming? Is the fact that people can't get health insurance, is that because of global warming?"

And even before the Vox interview, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — a once, and perhaps future, Republican presidential contender — told Fox News that "a beheading is much worse than a sunburn."

New safety rules for 'bomb trains' under White House review. Read more here.

Obama has repeatedly warned of climate change as a long-term threat. In his January State of the Union speech, he noted that the Pentagon has called climate change a "threat multiplier." An October report from the Defense Department noted that a warming world "will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict," fueling shortages of food and water, raising the odds of epidemics and making disputes over resources worse.

And the new National Security Strategy from the White House calls the issue "an urgent and growing threat to our national security."

"The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure, and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, com­pounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure."

The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates the number of deaths from terrorism has increased fivefold since 2000, with nearly 18,000 victims in 2013. The war in Syria accounts for much of the current toll, the group reported last year.

On the other hand, the World Bank estimates that climate change "threatens to put prosperity out of reach of millions and roll back decades of development progress."

Earnest told ABC News' Jonathan Karl on Tuesday that "more people are directly affected by those things than by terrorism." But he wouldn't elaborate when asked whether the administration considered climate change a greater threat than terrorism: "I wouldn't have a whole lot more to say about what the president has said in that interview."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl