October 16, 2014

What is the greatest threat to the world? Depends on where you live

2014 has been a tumultuous year in international affairs. From the conflict in Ukraine, to horrific bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the spreading Ebola epidemic in West Africa and continued weakness in the European economy, numerous world crises have given people plenty to be worried about.

In spring of this year, even before many of these headline events took place, we surveyed people in 44 countries and asked about the greatest threat to the world. Here are 5 key takeaways from the new report:

1 Infectious disease, AIDS, top concerns in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africans Fear AIDS and DiseasePrior to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa becoming a high-profile international story, a median of 29% across the seven African nations polled feared infectious disease as the top danger. Many of these countries have high prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS and have suffered through multiple disease epidemics in the last decade. However, other problems also worry Africans. In Nigeria, where religious strife is exacerbated by the Boko Haram terrorist group, more say religious and ethnic hatred is the world’s greatest threat (38%).

2 Religious and ethnic hatred is the top danger for those in the Middle East

FT_14.10.16_greatDanger-01Across the seven Middle Eastern countries surveyed, a median of 34% see religious and ethnic hatred as the world’s top threat. This includes 58% of Lebanese, a country divided by religion and bordering both Syria and Israel. Given the history of religious violence in the region, the result might not be surprising. Yet, since the question was last asked in 2007, and religious and ethnic conflicts have played out in Syria, Iraq and beyond, fears have increased significantly in the region, including Lebanon (+19 percentage points), Egypt (+18), Turkey (+9) and Jordan (+6).

3 Europeans worry about inequality

FT_14.10.16_greatDanger-02Before talk about a “triple dip recession” made headlines, Europeans have been overwhelmed with economic concerns and the growing gap between the rich and the poor is high on that list. Overall, a median of 32% across the seven EU nations surveyed name inequality as the top threat to the world. People in Spain and Greece, among the hardest hit by the Eurocrisis, are especially worried. In fact, worries about inequality have doubled in Spain since 2007, as well as in Italy, another economically damaged southern European country. While the British are also concerned about inequality, fears about religious and ethnic hatred are even more common in the United Kingdom (39% name it top threat).

4 In U.S., Republicans and Democrats see different threats

Americans are somewhat divided on their biggest fear. While many name inequality (27%), around a quarter also see religious and ethnic hatred (24%) and the spread of nuclear weapons (23%) as top threats. But as with many issues in the U.S., there is a party divide. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to name ethnic hatred as a top concern. And Democrats are more apt to name the gap between the rich and the poor as the greatest danger. Independents are more divided.

Democrats Fear Inequality, Republicans Fear Religious Strife

5 Japanese worry about nuclear weapons

FT_14.10.16_greatDanger-04In Japan, the only country in which nuclear weapons have been used in open warfare, nearly half of the public say the spread of such weapons is the greatest threat. Fading memories of the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may also explain why 18-29 year olds are less concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons than those 50 and older.

Topics: Energy and Environment, Religion and Society, International Threats and Allies, Nuclear Threats, Health

  1. Photo of Jacob Poushter

    is a senior researcher focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.


  1. Jonathan Eden3 years ago

    You do not mention global warming as a separate category of threat? I suppose it counts as ‘pollution & environment’; but global warming is frequently in the newspaper here in England. I myself was very interested that so many people worldwide name nuclear weapons; I agree with that, and might add, Warfare and weaponry of all sorts, is right now causing vast suffering. But nuclear weapons are rarely mentioned in the news here. I wonder if there is any way I could express my concern to members of parliament; or any charity that is able to make the issue more prominent.

  2. newellalan3 years ago

    i noticed the population of humans was not listed as a threat. maybe you poll should be sent to the mainstream medias of the world.

    1. T Downing3 years ago

      Which population?

  3. devesh kumar3 years ago

    Cast system with poverty and partiality through Dirty Politics is unsolved problem . . . . .

  4. Cam Cowie3 years ago

    How on earth is inequality the biggest threat to the world? Not a good thing, by any stretch, but an actual threat?

    1. Craig Slist3 years ago

      Unchecked inequality ultimately leads to civil unrest.

    2. T Downing3 years ago

      People hope that their lot will be better than that of their parents or the previous generation. Dashed expectations is a serious risk to political and economic stability and personal happiness. What justifies the extreme concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few, particularly in the financial sector? Productivity is rising and real wages falling.. most people are working harder (both spouses) and ending up worse off.

  5. Matt O’Clanshoy3 years ago

    One of the greatest threats to the world IS religion, the more assured of exclusive salvation and the more materially powerful, the greater the threat. But the real causes of such threats are the compounded effects of overpopulation, un(der)employment, inadequate education, and climate change. Since none of these shows signs of reversing course or even of much amelioration, there is no reason to expect anything but continuing and intensifying religious scapegoating, violence, and ethnic cleansing from here to Armageddon.