Republicans obsessed with wrong risk

A group rallied for action on climate change in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican in June.
A group rallied for action on climate change in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican in June. The Associated Press

The chances of a U.S. citizen being killed by a terrorist are slimmer than being struck by lightning. That remains true even after the Nov. 13 Paris massacre.

In fact, the chances of dying at the hands of terrorists are actually 1 in 20 million. So you're far more likely to die from a car accident, airplane crash, post-surgery complications or gun violence than from terrorism.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of millions dying from the effects of climate change is about 97 in 100. That figure refers to the percentage of climate scientists who tell us that human inaction on the climate front will result in disastrous, planet-wide catastrophe. (By the way, 97 percent is about the same percentage as medical researchers who say that smoking causes cancer.)

And yet, in the wake of the Paris massacre, politicians call for absolute caution about the acceptance of refugees while siding with the 3 percent of scientists denying human responsibility for climate change.

On refugees, Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama called for excluding Iraqi and Syrian refugees from his state “if there's even the slightest risk that they're not the kind of people that we wish them to be.”

He is not alone. At least 31 governors (almost of them Republican) have expressed similar determination to prevent refugees from entering their states. Gov. Greg Abbot of Texas said, “I will not roll the dice and take the risk on allowing a few refugees in simply to expose Texans to that danger” of some refugee committing a terrorist act. “Better safe than sorry,” adds Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who describes himself as “a devout Catholic.”

The Catholic reference is important, because the position of Pope Francis is exactly the reverse of the Republicans’ who overwhelmingly identify themselves as fervent Christians. The pope has called for opening doors to refugees from Syria and Iraq. He has reminded believers that Jesus himself was a refugee from state violence and that his mother experienced the same terror suffered by Iraqis, Syrians, Somalians and others.

Meanwhile, in his landmark encyclical on the environment, the pope urged extreme caution about climate change. He quotes the 1992 Rio Declaration on the crisis: Where “there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures.”

So who’s right, Ryan and his colleagues or the pope?

Given the 1 in 20 million chance of being killed by a terrorist on the one hand, and the near certainty of millions dying from human-induced climate change on the other, is the pertinent popular phrase Ryan's “better safe than sorry” or is it “penny-wise and pound-foolish”?

Perhaps it is both. Think about that for a minute.

Michael Rivage-Seul is a former priest and retired Berea College professor.