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SCARY! 59,000 farmer suicides linked to climate change

Last updated on: September 18, 2017 08:59 IST

'The number of deaths attributable to warming is likely to rise in the future.'

Farmer suicides

IMAGE: Suraj Govind, 9, the son of a farmer who committed suicide in Maharashtra, at a protest organised by farmers' organizations demanding complete debt waiver and good rates for their crops in New Delhi in July.
The cap reads: 'My father has committed suicide.'
Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Tamma Carleton

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that climate change had caused more than 59,000 farmer suicides in India over the last 30 years.

They also warned that suicide rate across the country would increase substantially as global temperatures rise.

Tamma Carleton, left, one of the researchers, is a PhD student in agricultural & resource rconomics at UC Berkeley specialising in problems at the intersection of environment and development.

Her doctoral research 'seeks to improve quantitative understanding of how global environmental change influences and is shaped by economic development'.

Earlier, as a Rhodes Scholar, she did her masters at the university of Oxford in environmental change & management and economics for development.

At Oxford, she was awarded the George Webb Medley prize for best performance in development economics.

She was also a co-ordinator of the Oxford Food Security Forum.

Carleton is currently also an Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellow.

Her current projects include studies on agricultural subsidies and global water use, crop diversity and farmer welfare in India during the Green Revolution, climate and suicide in modern India, and opium poppy, violence and drought in Afghanistan.

In this email interview with Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier, Carleton explains how climate change causes havoc in the lives of Indian farmers.

 

From your research on agriculture and resource economics, how much do you think global environmental changes influence and affect the economic development of a country and its farmers?

There is mounting evidence of the substantial role that the climate plays in determining many social and economic outcomes.

In a recent paper of mine, co-authored with Solomon Hsiang, I review a rapidly growing research literature on the social and economic impacts of climate.

We show that temperature, in particular, exerts a remarkable influence over human systems at many scales: heat increases mortality rates, has lasting effects on foetuses and infants, and incites aggression and violence, while also lowering worker productivity, damaging crops, stressing energy systems and triggering migration.

Tropical cyclones also cause mortality, damage assets, and reduce economic output for long periods, while precipitation extremes harm economies and populations predominately in agriculturally dependent settings.

These effects are often quantitatively substantial.

For example, in this paper we calculate that temperature currently lowers the United States' maize yields by 48 per cent, that warming trends since 1980 have elevated conflict risk in Africa by 11 per cent, and that future warming may slow global economic growth rates by 0.28 percentage points per year.

These damages are not limited to a future under climate change, as even today many consequences of the climate are distressing.

For example, we calculate that current temperature climatologies slow the global economic growth rate by about 0.25 percentage points per year, comparable to the additional slowing of 0.28 percentage points per year projected from future warming.

You have done a study on the way climate change affects the livelihood of Indian farmers, leading them to commit suicide.
You wrote that global warming over the last 30 years is responsible for 59,300 suicides in India, which is a 6.8 per cent of the total upward trend.
Were you shocked by the statistics and the connection between climate change, crops failure and farmer suicides?

Each life claimed by suicide is devastating.

It was both shocking and heartbreaking to see that thousands of people face such bleak conditions that they are driven to harm themselves.

The impacts of the climate on suicide that I uncovered increased my own sense of urgency around the global challenge of climate change, making it clear that this is a problem we face today, not an issue we can afford to defer to future years.

With respect to the 6.8 per cent value, this is the share of total suicides that are attributable to warming. I see this as a significant number for two reasons.

First, climate change has just begun to unfold, and the warming experienced since 1980 is far less than what is projected to occur in the coming decades.

Therefore, the number of deaths attributable to warming is likely to rise in the future.

Second, because the population of India is so large and the suicide rate relatively high, contributing 6.8 per cent to the total upward trend means that climate change has caused many thousands of lives.

The finding that over 59,000 suicides are attributable to warming places exceptional urgency on climate mitigation and adaptation policy.

While I was deeply saddened to uncover the magnitude of the effect of climate on suicides in India, I was encouraged to find that this link appears to occur through damages to crops. Because these deaths appear economic in nature, there is a clear role for policy solutions, which can step in to support households in years of crop-damaging climate events.

WATCH: How Tamil Nadu farmers tried to get the Centre's attention.
Video: ANI

 

Do you think this is confined only to India, considering climate change is affecting the entire world?

Because farming in India is incredibly stressful and risky, it's possible that these households are more susceptible to the suicidal effects of the climate.

Indeed, many writers and policymakers have hypothesised that adverse climate events, which damage crops, are pushing households into economic destitution, and that some individuals are coping by committing suicide.

In this study, I use data and careful statistics to test this hypothesis.

The findings of this study are most applicable to India, as the analysis does not contain data from any other countries. However, the impacts of climate change on suicide that I uncover are potentially relevant to other parts of the world.

In particular, it is possible that a similar link between climatic conditions that damage crops and suicide rates may exist in locations where populations are heavily dependent on agricultural income, and where social safety nets to insure against these severe income shocks are minimal.

Many other developing countries are similar to India in these dimensions, as agriculture is the primary occupation for many households, while crop insurance is scarcely available and rural credit markets function poorly.

I hope that future research using data from other regions may be able to test the generalisability of the findings I have uncovered in India.

While it is likely that the key findings from this study are most directly applicable to other developing country contexts, there does exist some evidence (external link) that similar links between crop-damaging climate events and suicide operate in Australia, suggesting that this phenomenon is not limited to lower income countries.

Is climate change the only reason why crops are failing in India?

Climate change is absolutely not the only reason crops get damaged or suicides occur in India.

In my approach, I isolate the role of climate in determining suicides and crop yields from all other possible contributing factors by following the same location within India as it experiences a different climate at different points in time.

So, we can think about observing an agricultural community during a hot growing season, in which temperatures get to levels that damage crops.

Then, we observe that same community in a year where growing season temperatures are cooler, remaining at levels optimal for crop growth.

We can compare the suicide rate and crop yields in this location in the year with a hot growing season to the suicide rate and yields during the year with a cooler growing season.

After controlling for other regional trends, this allows me to isolate the role of the climate from all other drivers.

It's important to note that this is not a deterministic relationship between temperature and suicide, or between temperature and crop yields.

You can think about this relationship like the rise in car accidents on rainy days.

There are many possible factors causing any individual car accident. However, we can measure the elevated risk of an accident caused by a rainy day, on top of these other factors like road quality or driver error, by comparing total car accident rates on different days.

While the rain increases the risk of accidents in general, any individual car accident is still dependent on the situation and the choices made by the driver.

Similar to measuring the elevated risk of a car accident on rainy days, I quantify the elevated risk of suicide during years of abnormally hot growing season temperatures.

I then calculate the impact of warming trends in growing season temperature by comparing the estimated suicide rate in a world in which the climate warmed over the last 30 years, as we've observed in the data record since 1980, to the estimated suicide rate in a world in which those upward warming trends do not occur.

I compute the difference in suicide rates between these two scenarios in each year, and finally I determine the total suicides due to climate change by adding up the excess deaths across all years since 1980.

We can again think about this as similar to the elevated risk of car accidents on rainy days.

Once we have measured the relationship between a rainy day and the elevated risk of accidents, we can think about counting the excess accidents in a given location over time, as a location gets rainier and rainier.

After some set of years with more and more rainy days, we can add up all the additional accidents that are due to the upward trend in rainy days.

Professor M S Swaminathan, the man behind India's Green Revolution 50 years ago says that farmers in India face two major challenges: Wcological and economical.
As the cost of production is high, they do not get the expected returns from farming.
Do you agree?

Given the limited availability of data, this study cannot directly speak to particular policy solutions that are actively being debated in India.

For example, I cannot trace changes in the climate to individuals who incur debt, and show evidence that debt-relief programmes or access to low-interest loans could mitigate rising suicide rates.

I also cannot identify whether a suicide victim had access to crop insurance or not, and whether that insurance made suicide a less likely outcome in light of a warming climate.

Therefore, while my findings are suggestive that such policies may be fruitful, it is left to future research to focus on specific policy solutions to the tragic deaths we see as a result of climate change.

In particular, access to data on farmer debt burdens and farmer access to different forms of crop insurance would greatly improve our ability as researchers to draw conclusions about the efficacy of specific policy.

Since 50 per cent of India's population depend solely on the monsoon for farming, they face disaster if one monsoon fails.
Do you think India has to use new technologies and change farming techniques to improve agricultural produce?

In my study, I find that the effect of temperature on suicide appears to materialize through crop damages.

This result provides evidence consistent with policies that seek to reduce suicides by weakening the link between a risky climate and agricultural incomes.

This analysis does not have the data required to make specific policy recommendations regarding suicide prevention in India, nor policy solutions to improve farming techniques.

However, the finding that crop losses appear to be the key culprit linking the climate to suicide suggests that policies like crop insurance, which protect farm incomes from the vagaries of the climate, could be successful in reducing suicides.

Access to low-interest loans through well-functioning rural credit markets may also help limit the damage caused by warming temperatures, as farmers can access quality seed without incurring debt burdens that become insurmountable.

Other possible adaptive responses could include farm-based solutions to protect yields against warming temperatures, such as crop switching to increase heat tolerance, or investment in irrigation technologies to combat rainfall variability.

WATCH: The tragedy of an MP farmer and his teenage daughters.
Video: ANI

 

Various states in India have tried to tackle farmer suicides through farm loan waivers as debts are the main reason behind the suicides.
But many experts are of the opinion that loan waiver is not the answer.
As climate change is not within the control of any government, do you think initiatives like loan waivers, crop insurance, soil cards etc are the solutions to tackle agricultural failure and farmer suicides?

This analysis does not have the data required to make specific policy recommendations regarding suicide prevention in India, nor policy solutions to improve farming techniques.

However, the finding that crop losses appear to be the key culprit linking the climate to suicide suggests that policies like crop insurance, which protect farm incomes from the vagaries of the climate, could be successful in reducing suicides.

Access to low-interest loans through well-functioning rural credit markets may also help limit the damage caused by warming temperatures, as farmers can access quality seed without incurring debt burdens that become insurmountable.

Other possible adaptive responses could include farm-based solutions to protect yields against warming temperatures, such as crop switching to increase heat tolerance, or investment in irrigation technologies to combat rainfall variability.

However, the data in my analysis are not sufficient to assess any particular adaptive strategy or any individual policy proposal.

I hope that future research will help to fill this important gap in our understanding of how we can work to slow the tragic rise in suicide in India.

From your study, do you foresee a bleak future for Indian agriculture and farmers because global warming is expected to go up by 3°C by 2050?

One of the key findings of my paper is that I see no evidence that populations within India have been able to successfully adapt to a warming climate, at least in terms of the suicide response to temperature.

Rising incomes realised through economic growth are often thought to enable populations to reduce the negative effects of climate.

Households with more economic resources may be able to invest in heat-tolerant seeds, pay the up front costs of irrigation technologies, or take up crop insurance, while poorer households may be unable to adopt such adaptive strategies.

Therefore, I test the hypothesis that as India's national income rose over the last five decades, the sensitivity of suicides to temperature, fell.

Likewise, increases in average crop yields could have weakened the link between temperature and suicide by providing agricultural households with more savings, and, hence, more resilience in light of an adverse climate event.

However, I found that these forms of adaptation were taking place, as the effect of temperature on suicide is virtually identical in recent years as it was nearly 50 years ago.

This suggests that without substantial investments in adaptation, we are likely to see a growing number of lives lost to self-harm as climate change continues to unfold and temperatures rise.

While I was indeed surprised to find no evidence of adaptation, this is not inconsistent with the broader literature on climate impacts, where researchers have found little evidence of adaptation in other regions of the world and for other types of climate damages.

For example, crop yields in the US have remained highly sensitive to hot temperatures over many decades of technological advances in farming.

Shobha Warrier / Rediff.com