Constant threat of attack makes everyday life dangerous here.

In certain regions of the world, there is a constant risk of hydrocarbon pollution.

Both risk and threat mean the possibility of something bad. I'm looking for the right explanation of the difference between the two concepts. Would it be correct to say that threat is more urgent, probable than risk?


A risk is a potential danger that arises because of your own actions. That is, you take on risk or engage in risky behavior.

A threat is a potential danger that arises from external circumstances. That is, you can be under threat or be in a threatening situation.

In your examples, the "threat of attack" is from external aggressors, whereas the "risk of hydrocarbon pollution" is generally due to the actions of the local population.

This difference is most clear-cut when you're talking about business or finance:

Our investment strategy is high-risk, high-reward. [because of our choice of investments]

A rising US dollar poses a threat to our profit margins in Asia. [because of economic factors outside of our control]

Sometimes you will hear risk used for situations that seem to be completely based on external circumstances, particularly with weather:

There is a risk of afternoon thunderstorms.

But even then, the implicit context is that if you choose to do something outdoors this afternoon, you will risk getting rained on.

  • Consider the following sentences please: We have to take action to avert the threat of pollution from ship-generated waste. It was found that the East Asian coastal areas are particularly at risk of pollution from land-based sources. Does it sound like in the first sentence we're talking about some external circumstances, while in the second - we're not? – Enguroo Jan 5 at 6:32
  • One more thing. "An estimated seven million people are at risk of starvation." To be at risk may be just a phrase to remember, but it looks like it's not down to the actions of the 7 million people but someone else's actions... – Enguroo Jan 5 at 6:42
  • @Enguroo - I agree that the boundary is not entirely clearcut, but I'd argue that's just people not being particularly precise with their language. Look at the associated verbs: "to risk" something is always the actor exposing himself to danger, where as "to threaten" is the actor imposing a danger on someone else. – Canadian Yankee Jan 5 at 16:05

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