How global warming killed 59,000 Indian farmers

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Sustainable Energy

How global warming killed 59,000 Indian farmers

Photos by John Pfeil

A ray of light left the sun eight minutes and 20 seconds before it hit Shubham Indra Dukle in the eye. He blinked, but not quick enough. The ray ricocheted back into the sky. On its way into the atmosphere, it warmed a bit of carbon dioxide. That day, the air warmed past 20 degrees Celsius, the tipping point.

That was the day Shubham drank farming pesticide to kill himself.

His crop was failing, leaving his young family with crushing debt. Shubham was certain to become another name to add to his community’s list of men lost to failed crops and unmanageable debts.

A new study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley is shedding light on the changing climate’s effect on farmers like Shubham. The researchers looked at the link between heat and suicide among India’s farmers. They found a direct link between high temperatures and an increase in the number of farmers killing themselves. The results show that global warming trends have been responsible for over 59,000 suicides in India over the last 30 years.

Farming is a risky business

No matter the country, no matter the economy, farmers over the world can be one failed crop away from massive debt. Farmers in India are at a high risk for mental illness because of the stress of carrying large amounts of debt, coupled with the threat that the next growing season could come to nothing because of unpredictable weather. What affects farmers in India affects the nation, as 600 million Indians rely on farming for their livelihood.

The UC-Berkeley study shows a direct link between farmer suicides in India and high temperatures. For every degree above 20-degrees Celsius during the growing season, 67 more farmers will kill themselves.

In other words:

21-degrees C = 67 more deaths

22-degrees C = 134 more deaths

23-degrees C = 201 more deaths

The increase only occurs during the growing season. This is how researchers know these high temperatures caused farmer suicides. Amazingly, they also found an increase of one extra centimeter of rain during the growing season resulted in 7 percent fewer suicides for two years, according to the report.

The findings are a big deal for climate change researchers. Beyond the science, the report shows the human cost of climate change on farmers like Shubham.

Fortunately Shubham’s friends found him unconscious and rushed him to the hospital. He was sick but survived. He received counseling through a program called VISHRAM. The program was designed to support farmers in Shubham’s region. It is community-based and does mental health treatment in agricultural communities. With the help, Shubham now says he knows the signs of depression and how to reach out to his friends for support. He says he won't seclude himself when he feels sad.

Interventions like VISHRAM help many farmers, but with 1.3 billion people now in India, they can’t reach even a tiny fraction — and climate change is affecting everyone.

Farmers from the drought-stricken South of India camped in the capital, Delhi to protest their plight. They attracted media attention for what they brought with them — the bones of friends they say killed themselves because of crippling debt.

The researchers ... found a direct link between high temperatures and an increase in the number of farmers killing themselves.

The farmers want the government to do more. They want debt relief for the millions of farmers in India who deal with crop insecurity in a time of extreme weather caused by climate change.

Indians have been talking about this problem a long time now. Cable news stations run specials about it, politicians from all parties make reference to it, even the film industry has told these stories. There’s a movie called Peepli Live, a dark comedy about a farmer who voices his plan to kill himself. The media gets wind of it and starts a 24/7 broadcast of his suicide attempt. Local and then national politicians get involved and the farmer becomes a rallying cry for various national interests.

A growing movement in India is trying to do something meaningful about the threat to farmers. Cultivating Hope, a series by India’s largest cable news network, NDTV, looks at the steps public and private organizations are taking to prevent farmer suicide. Among potential solutions: weather insurance, mental health interventions, mobile phone information, responsible media coverage, and drought resistant irrigation and farming methods.

All these steps reduce suicides, but they’re not enough. The real problem is simply the changing climate. As the United States’ commitment to the Paris climate accord on combating climate change is waning, India has expressed a commitment to uphold it. In June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India will go “above and beyond” the accord.

These commitments to reducing climate change are vital to the lives of farmers like Shubham, who pay a disproportionate cost for the chance to live on earth and make an honest living. This study shows just how high that cost has been. Shubham isn’t dwelling on this though, he’s pressing forward, and it’s all of our responsibilities to do the same. All 7.4 billion of us depend on it.

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