Refugees, risks and record temperatures
© Getty Images

Many government policies are (at least in part) about reducing risks to the public. Funding the police reduces the risk that people will be the victims of crime. Providing an education reduces the risk that people will grow up destitute. Requiring environmental protections reduces the risk that people breathing polluted air will contract cancer. And screening potential entrants to this country will reduce the risk that there is a terrorsist attack here in the United States. Sure, there are other concerns in each of these issues, but reducing risk makes up a significant part of the rationale for spending public dollars, or requiring the spending of private funds, in these areas.

ADVERTISEMENT

Once we agree on this point, the key policy question is: How much do we want to reduce the risk? In many cases, there is a temptation to answer this question by saying we should reduce the risk to zero. But this is almost never the right answer. First of all, zero risk is almost never possible. And if it were possible, would we be willing to bear the costs of achieving it? North Korea has no terrorist attacks, but I doubt that anyone (well, anyone except this guy) wants to create the totalitarian state necessary to reduce risks to that level. Similarly, eliminating all risk from pollution would destroy our economy.

OK, so let's say we agree that reducing the risk of bad things is good public policy and that we can't or don't want to reduce most risks to zero. How, then, do we decide how much these risks should be lowered? In the view of people who study risk, this involves at least three other questions. What is the level of danger from the current level of risk? How much will government intervention reduce the risk? And how much does it cost to reduce the risk? Let's think about these questions in terms of two issues currently in the news: climate change and settling Syrian refugees.

In the case of Syrian refugees, there is already an extensive process for the screening of refugees. The process takes years and most of those who have been admitted are children. Any terrorist group looking to infiltrate the United States is likely to use other means rather than the existing refugee process. In other words, the U.S. House of Representatives has threatened to shut down the government over tightening the process for admitting refugees, which will do virtually nothing to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack.

And the cost of letting in fewer Syrian refugees? The answer to this question rests upon your sense of moral obligation to help those fleeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I feel that the moral cost of ignoring this humanitarian crisis and doing nothing to help abate it is enormous. Therefore, to restrict the admission of refugees does little to change the risk of a terrorist attack, but has very real costs.

In the case of climate change, the long-term risks to human life and welfare are extraordinary, but so are the costs of reducing those risks. While President Obama's Clean Power Plan will help reduce this risk, it is costly. The irony is that Congress has rejected ways of reducing these risks that are probably cheaper, including a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade bill. The same people who are willing to impose costs in order to address the miniscule risk of terror attacks from refugees are unwilling to spend to prevent the far greater risk of climate change.

There is one problem with this argument: We human beings rarely perceive risks correctly. A big event like the Paris attacks leads us to overestimate all terrorism risks. When we don't like one aspect of a question (admitting refugees who look different than us), we tend to change our views on other aspects of that question (the risks they represent). This is also true in the context of climate change, as research has shown that sentiments regarding risk are related to the temperature outside. Politicians respond to these irrational reactions.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric we hear from Washington also shapes our attitudes toward risk. When our political leaders tell us that those risks are higher than they really are, this irresponsible leadership leads us to reaffirm our biggest worries. What we really need from our leaders is a more honest approach to risks, whether those risks come from a warming planet or a terrorist organization.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.