Every year, thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide. Now one researcher thinks it may have something to do with climate change.
Tamma Carleton, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, compared almost five decades worth of suicide and climate data and concluded that temperature variations in India may have “a strong influence” on suicide rates during the growing season.
In her study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Carleton estimates that more than 59,000 farmer suicides over the past 30 years can be linked to global warming.
Carleton’s findings are particularly worrisome and come just two months after the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord, which was adopted by 196 countries, including the United States under the Obama administration in December 2015. As part of the agreement, world leaders committed to holding the average global temperature rise to “well below” two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. After President Trump pulled out of the accord, many countries, including India and China, said they would continue to honor their commitments under the accord.
Senior members of the administration, including Trump, have expressed skepticism that climate change is caused by man-made carbon dioxide emissions. In a tweet in 2012, he wrote, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
According to one estimate cited in Carleton's article, India could experience an average temperature rise of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). The study suggests that the implications for India's mostly rural population could be devastating. “My findings suggest that this warming will be accompanied by a rising number of lives lost to self-harm,” she writes.
High temperatures in the growing season reduce crop yields, putting economic pressure on India's farmers, she writes. “These crop losses may also permeate throughout the economy, causing both farming and nonfarming populations to face distress as food prices rise and agricultural labor demand falls.”
Rainfall in the growing season, too, is important, Carleton suggests. More rain means higher yields, she writes, noting: “Suicide rates fall as growing season rainfall increases.”
According to the World Health Organization, India accounts for the highest number of suicides in the world. A staggering 133,623 people took their own lives in 2015, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. More than 12,000 of those were farmers and agricultural laborers, almost one-tenth of the total.
According to Indian authorities, bankruptcy and indebtedness or farming-related issues are cited as the major causes of suicide among farmers in India.
The government has initiated programs to help curb farmers' woes, including a $1.3 billion crop insurance plan.
In a recent radio broadcast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the devastating impact of climate change on India. “Climate change, altered weather cycles and transformations in the environment are also having a big negative impact. Recently, in certain parts of India, particularly, Assam, northeast [India], Gujarat, Rajasthan and some areas of Bengal, have had to bear the brunt of natural disasters caused by excessive rains,” he said, referring to states that have been inundated by floods this year.
“Life goes completely topsy-turvy as a result of the floods. Crops, livestock, infrastructure, roads, electricity, communication links — everything gets affected. In particular, our farmer brethren have to bear a lot of losses because of the damage to their crops and fields.” he said.