Climate change, terrorism top global security concerns: PEW study

A new survey has found rising concerns about climate change, the "Islamic State" and cyberattacks. But more people now see US power and influence as a threat, marking a significant rise from only two years ago.

A 26-country survey published on Monday found that a majority of countries see climate change as "the top international threat." Terrorism, especially the kind perpetrated by the "Islamic State" militant group, came up as the second-highest threat, topping security concerns in eight of the countries surveyed in the Pew Research Center study.

China's power and influence was at the bottom of the threat list, which included cyberattacks, North Korea's nuclear program and the condition of the global economy. Meanwhile, compared to similar surveys conducted in 2013 and 2017, more people now believe US power and influence is a major threat.

Read more: Opinion: Europe must retain control of its energy security 

Top threats:

  • Thirteen countries, including Germany and Canada, see global climate change as the top threat.
  • The "Islamic State" is seen as the top threat in eight countries, including France and Italy.
  • State-sponsored cyberattacks are seen as the top threat in four countries, including the US and Japan.
  • Russia's power and influence is seen as the top threat in only one country: Poland.
  • Nearly half of German respondents said US power and influence is a major threat to their country.

Read more: With INF treaty at risk, Germans fear new arms race

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.

In depth

DW caught up with Jacob Poushter, associate director of the Pew Research Center and lead author of the study, to discuss the findings.

DW: How does the rise in the perception of the US being a threat contrast with the perception of Russia and China globally?

Jacob Poushter: Globally, across the 22 countries which have trends going back to 2013, a little over a third say that Russia's power and influence is a major threat to their country and the same is true for China's power and influence. More people across this selection of countries say US power and influence is a major threat compared to Russian and Chinese power and influence. That is actually a change from 2013 when slightly more people across these countries said Russia and China were more of a threat compared to the US. That is a pretty stark change as well.

There are caveats where this pattern does not exist and one good example is Poland, where Russia's power and influence is seen as the top threat across all the questions we asked, and in South Korea, where China's power and influence is the second-highest threat. There are exceptions to that rule, but generally that's the case.

Read more: As China takes 'center stage,' Europe stands at a crossroads

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'We have less than a decade to solve climate change'

Climate change is viewed as the top threat by the largest number of countries. In the US, which is often considered an outlier on this issue, the perception of climate change has also increased, correct?

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More Americans named climate change as a major threat in 2018 than in 2013; in fact, it's up 19 percentage points. It's a growing threat to Americans as well as those in European countries. The difference might be that in the United States, the partisan divide is very large, where Democrats are much more likely to say climate change is a major threat compared to Republicans. There is a gap of 56 percentage points, which is very large. 

Even though there are ideological gaps in other countries, the American gap seems to be a particular standout.

Read more: 'The entire economy thrives on the destruction of nature'

Is there something else you would want to point out from your study?

There is also an interesting gender difference, where women are generally more concerned about North Korea's nuclear program, global climate change and ISIS (another name for the "Islamic State" — Editor's note) than are men in many of the European and North American countries that we surveyed.

Also, the threat of a cyberattack is an issue that has been rising in the minds of many people. We saw increases in many countries and worries about cyberattacks since we first asked the question in 2017.

Read more: 'Doomsday Clock' at 2 minutes to midnight

The interview was conducted by DW's Washington correspondent Michael Knigge and edited for clarity.

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