Climate Change and Cyber Attacks Named as Biggest Global Security Threats

Climate change is seen by more countries as a top international threat, but many also name ISIS and cyberattacks as their top security concern, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center conducted among 27,612 respondents in 26 countries from May 14 to Aug. 12, 2018.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last year expressing serious concerns about the possible impacts of climate change, both in the near and distant future. Broadly speaking, people around the world agree that climate change poses a severe risk to their countries. Since 2013, worries about the climate threat have increased significantly. The biggest increases have been in France (up 29 percentage points) and Mexico (up 28 points), but there have been double-digit rises in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Spain, Kenya, Canada, South Africa and Poland as well.

But global warming is just one of many concerns. Cyber attacks from other countries is another growing concern. And terrorism, specifically from the Islamic extremist group known as ISIS, remains a threat although the number of countries citing this as their top concern have recently decreased. Substantial double-digit declines among those saying ISIS is a major threat occurred over the past year in Israel (down 16 points), Spain (-13), the U.S. (-12), Greece (-10) and Japan (-10).

In the United States, 74 percent of respondents said cyber attacks from other countries was their top concern, followed by the threat from ISIS at 62 percent, climate change at 59 percent, North Korea’s nuclear program at 58 percent, Russia’s power and influence at 50 percent, China’s power and influence at 48 percent, and the condition of the global economy at 44 percent. It’s possible that these results already differ six months later, reflecting new concerns over Russia and China, and a weakened ISIS. But perhaps the time has come for the current Administration to heed the warnings on climate change – and act, given that other areas of similar concern receive full attention. There are signs in the Republican Party that, as a whole, it is heeding the warnings. Since 2017, the share of Republicans who take a positive view of stricter environmental laws has increased, from 36 percent then to 45 percent today.

13 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany, thought climate change was the biggest threat to security. Eight countries believed the threat from ISIS is still a major concern, and the Netherlands, Japan and South Africa joined the U.S. in putting cyber attacks from other countries at the top of their concerns.

Poland was the only country to cite Russia’s power and influence as its top concern (65 percent), no countries said power and influence from the U.S. or China was a top concern, nor did they think the global economy or Korea’s nuclear program was the main security concern of the moment.

While a median of less than half across the nations in the survey say the influence of the U.S. is a major threat to their countries, more people now say it is a threat than in 2013 and 2017. Indeed, in 10 countries, roughly half or more now claim that American power is a major threat to their nation – including 64 percent who say this in Mexico, where ratings for the U.S. have turned sharply negative since the election of President Donald Trump.

Partisan and Ideological Divides

On a variety of threats, but especially on climate change and ISIS, there are sharp ideological and partisan divides in Europe and North America. For example, in the U.S., Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party are 56 percentage points less likely to believe that global climate change is a major threat to their country than are Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party. While this partisan divide is substantial, it is not unique. In Europe, supporters of some right-wing populist parties are less concerned than others about climate change. For instance, those with a favorable view of Alternative for Germany (AfD) are 28 percentage points less likely to say that climate change is a major threat to their country than those who do not support that party. Double-digit differences on this issue also appear between supporters and nonsupporters of UKIP in the UK, National Front (now National Rally) in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Sweden Democrats in Sweden.

There are also strong ideological divides on the threat perceptions of climate change and ISIS across Europe and North America. In nine of the 12 European and North American countries surveyed, those on the ideological left are more concerned about the threat of global climate change than those on the right. This is especially the case in the U.S., where nearly nine-in-ten (87 percent) among those on the left say global warming is a top concern, versus only 31 percent on the right who say this. Conversely, those on the political right in Europe and North America are often more concerned about ISIS than are those on the left. This includes ideological differences of more than 20 percentage points in the Netherlands, Canada, the U.S. and Sweden on the ISIS threat.

Pew found a slight education divide on the threat of climate change exists in many European and North American countries surveyed, where those with more education are more inclined to say it is a threat than those with less education. In contrast to worries about climate change, in eight countries, those with less education are more likely to say ISIS is a major threat than their more educated counterparts.

There is also a significant age divide when it comes to perceiving the threat from ISIS. For example, in Germany, 78 percent of those ages 50 and older are worried about the ISIS threat, compared with only 42% among 18- to 29- year-old Germans.

Read the full report here

Kylie Bielby has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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