India’s Suicide Epidemic

Earlier this week, I wrote a post that questioned the accuracy of this statistic in an article by Michael Kugelman, a scholar in the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center:

Yet, when food prices fall, India’s small farmers suffer. Already crippled by debt and encumbered by water shortages, 200,000 of them have committed suicide over the past 13 years.

That just struck me as an extraordinarily high number of suicides, but I didn’t do anything to back up my skepticism. Instead, I shot from the hip and wrote that

…inflated statistics (be they propagated in the media or in policy journals) don’t help inform the [food security] policy debate.

Kugelman graciously responded to me in an email:

I’m glad you brought the 200,000 Indian farmer suicides figure to my attention. I can imagine it would be a controversial figure, given how high a number it is. Let me just make a few comments about it.

First, that figure is an Indian government estimate — it is not a CNN figure (though the figure was cited in the CNN article). Specifically, as stated by the BBC ) and others, it comes from India’s National Crime Records Bureau , which catalogues suicides and “accidental deaths” in India every year . When I checked the site just now, I didn’t come across anything specifically on farmer suicides, though I may not have looked hard enough. The NCRB, so far as I know, is a reputable institution (it is part of the Home Affairs Ministry).

See this excellent article, published by IBN News (a reputable Indian media outlet), on the NCRB’s research methodology for the 200,000 figure (try not to get confused by the “lakh” measure — I often do!):

Frankly, I am fairly confident that the 200,000 is a credible figure. As you know, India has more than a billion people, of whom at least 250 million live on less than a dollar a day. Though agriculture remains one of the largest employment sectors in India, it has suffered from sharp decreases in investment in recent years with the explosion in services. Farmers in India have been caught up in fake loan scams, making them hugely indebted. And with the extent of India’s water shortages, farmers are not in a position to intensify their farming to try to boost their sales to help pay off their debts. Suicide is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon in India (and not just among farmers).

I think the 200,000 may even be a conservative figure (as the IBN article suggests), given that the government would probably be likely to underinflate the figure, as opposed to overstate it.

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology, at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, was asked to weigh in and agreed that India’s National Crime Bureau (NRCB)

is a “reliable base,” and “if anything will have under-reported” the number of suicides.

Other policy experts I queried also found the 200,000 figure “plausible.”

Belatedly, I did some reporting and researching, all which confirmed that many thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives since the late 1990s.

So I want to apologize to Michael Kugelman for not doing my homework before critiquing his article. In the future, I’ll avoid blogging in haste and also be sure to offer citable evidence (or an argument) when making critiques.

Category: food security

Understanding the Climate State of Mind

In 2009, a cover story in The New York Times magazine titled, “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” opened this way:

Two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, the Pew Research Center released a poll ranking the issues that Americans said were the most important priorities for this year. At the top of the list were several concerns — jobs and the economy — related to the current recession. Farther down, well after terrorism, deficit reduction and en ergy (and even something the pollsters characterized as “moral decline”) was climate change. It was priority No. 20. That was last place.

Several days ago, Gallup released poll results ranking U.S public concern for nine environmental issues. Global warming came in last. I discussed the poll yesterday in this post, and a lively comment thread ensued.

So what’s going on here? Why isn’t global warming more worrisome to people? Jon Gertner, in his Times magazine piece two years ago, summarized the conventional explanations thought to be responsible:

Debates over why climate change isn’t higher on Americans’ list of priorities tend to center on the same culprits: the doubt-sowing remarks of climate-change skeptics, the poor communications skills of good scientists, the political system’s inability to address long-term challenges without a thunderous precipitating event, the tendency of science journalism to focus more on what is unknown (will oceans rise by two feet or by five?) than what is known and is durably frightening (the oceans are rising).

He could have written that paragraph today. But as his story lays out, there is a growing body of social science research that suggests the above reasons are not entirely sufficient (though they are surely contributing factors).

Earlier this month, I attended a conference on the state of this research and how it can be used to better communicate the climate change issue. The three-day symposium was called “Climate, Mind, and Behavior.” On the first day, one of the presenters, Jonathan Rowson, a UK scholar, set the stage with this:

Quite a few of us realize that [more] information isn’t working, that facts don’t do it. The question is, why exactly?”

One reason, Columbia University’s Elke Weber explained during her presentation (her work was also featured in that NYT magazine article), is that our brains are able to process only so many concerns at a given time:

If we have attentional limitations, if we have to be selective…it’s because we don’t have sufficient attention for everything.

Weber characterizes this as our “finite pool of worry.”

Thus, fluctuating public opinion on climate change, as measured in year-to-year polling surveys, should be understood in this context, Weber advised:

Sometimes we see these precipitous dips [in concern about climate change]. A lot of it has to do with ‘compared to what’ are we concerned about climate change.

For example, Weber attributed a big dip in 2001 to the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center:

We only have so much attention and worry to go around and compared to terrorism, climate change was low on the agenda.

Similarly, she added, a more recent dip in public concern occurred in 2008, amidst the global economic collapse.

Another reason why climate change doesn’t gain more traction, Weber said, is because of a lack of salience:

It doesn’t have the characteristics of making our hair stand up on end. For most of us, it’s distant in time and space.

Drew Westen, an Atlanta-based psychologist and political analyst who was beamed in via skype, reiterated during his talk that bombarding the public with more facts and data on climate change was a losing strategy. Instead, Westen argued that, “people don’t have strong emotions about climate change,” and that the best way to make the issue more deeply felt was through storytelling. Stories activate emotions, he said, noting:

We’re a storytelling species.

What’s needed, Westen said, are climate change narratives that

speak to ordinary citizens, particularly those that are on the fence.

Westen also emphasized the need for “multiple messages” that spoke to different demographics. Messages that succeed, he said, link climate change to values and concerns that people already have. So one message crafted around energy solutions might appeal to one group, while another message on pollution and health concerns might appeal to another.

This is similar to the framing strategy advocated by Matthew Nisbet and others.

I’ll be posting more dispatches from this symposium in the coming week. Meanwhile, those that are interested can head over to the Garrison Institute’s website, where a number of the talks are posted. Weber’s is just below.

Category: climate change, communication

Gallup Poll: Climate Change is Least of Concerns

There’s a new Gallup survey on environmental issues that will trigger a round of cheers and jeers in the climate blogosphere, depending on where you align. The main finding:

With Earth Day about a month away, Americans tell Gallup they worry the most about several water-related risks and issues among nine major environmental issues. They worry least about global warming and loss of open spaces.

The responses, as they come in from the two representative climate camps, should be a study in confirmation bias. Take Anthony Watts’ take:

Translation: green dudes, you are losing the public attention. Be thankful for the whacked out messages from people like Al Gore, Jim Hansen, Bill McKibben, Tim Flannery, and Joe Romm, because without them these AGW worry numbers would be far higher.

Doubtful. The American public, a bit distracted by an epic economic collapse and various other natural calamities and wars, isn’t paying much attention to global warming these last few years.

Another reason, as Ezra Klein correctly points out, is that

it’s difficult to persuade people to act on climate change now: unlike the American health-care system or the war in Iraq or even poisoned drinking water, it’s not obviously killing anyone right now.

In its overview, Gallup also notes:

The current levels of public concern about various environmental problems are essentially unchanged from 2010. However, Americans are less worried today than they were 10 years ago about all eight issues Gallup measured in 2001.

Watts, in keeping with his thematic “whacked out” gloss, says that this is “despite the recent shrillness of the environmental message.”

No. What he fails to mention is the larger context that Gallup next provides:

The decline over the past decade spans a period when the public often expressed surging concern about terrorismthe Iraq wargas prices, and the economy.

I’m waiting to hear from the other side of the spectrum that this latest poll is just more evidence that people are lacking all the facts on climate change-that the proper information isn’t getting to the public. (The zombie deficit model cannot be slain!)  Anyone who wants to go to the mat again with that argument should leave a comment and I’ll devote another post this week addressing your case.

Category: climate change, gallup poll, global warming

Follow the Cotton

Global food security concerns are about to ratchet up:

“There’s a lot more money to be made in cotton right now,” said Ramon Vela, a farmer here in the Texas Panhandle, as he stood in a field where he grew wheat last year, its stubble now plowed under to make way for cotton. Around the first week of May, Mr. Vela, 37, will plant 1,100 acres of cotton, up from 210 acres a year ago. “The prices are the big thing,” he said. “That’s the driving force.”

Economists, agricultural experts and government officials are predicting that many farmers, both in the United States and abroad, will join Mr. Vela this year in chasing the higher profits to be made in cotton — with consequences that could ripple across the globe.

“It’s good for the farmer, but from a humanitarian perspective it’s kind of scary,” said Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton and Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. “Those people in poor countries that have a hard time affording food, they’re going to be even less able to afford it now.”

Myriad factors determine food prices. Ethanol demand has pushed up corn prices. Wheat prices rose last year when Russia banned exports after drought devastated its crop.

Other global indicators are worrisome, too, according to this essay highlighted in The New Security Beat. But it contains an oft-repeated statistic that gives me pause:

Yet, when food prices fall, India’s small farmers suffer. Already crippled by debt and encumbered by water shortages, 200,000 of them have committed suicide over the past 13 years.

Hmm. That’s a huge number of people. The link is to a speculative, poorly sourced CNN story that makes me even more skeptical. It also reminds me of a similarly hyped claim in this Daily Mail article, which blamed the “genocide” of Indian farmer suicides on GM crops.

So which is the cause for the farmer suicide epidemic in India and how reliable are those numbers? Such questions don’t undercut the legitimacy of the global food security issue, but I’m also of the mind that inflated statistics (be they propagated in the media or in policy journals) don’t help inform the policy debate.

Category: food security

The Peak Oil “Crush”

Charlie Petit at Science Tracker has a confession. He doesn’t think he’s the only one, either:

A lot of science journalists who cover energy issues have probably gone through an infatuation stage, and then break-up, with a seductive actor: Peak Oil. It appeals to any reporter trying to cover a beat where numbers and natural (that is, based on reality and science) processes are important. Plus it’s geology.

Charlie, in his own uniquely engaging manner, seems to have fun while he’s drawing our attention to notable science stories (and occasional blog posts) of the day. His short, conversational anecdotes (sometimes cleverly disguised as gentle critiques) are like the warm-up act to the main show.

He and the Tracker have become essential reading for science & environmental journalists. Yet his style seems geared to a non-journalist audience as well, which is a good thing.

Category: science journalism

The Zero Sum Nuclear Debate

Michael Levi on why we don’t have a rational discussion:

Most advocates can’t admit that there are any downsides to nuclear power. Most opponents can’t accept that nuclear power has anything going for it.

But a commenter at his site, who is a Stanford law professor and energy policy expert, makes a good point about the “cost” issue that I’d like to see Levi address.

Category: Energy, nuclear power

Haley Barbour is Free at Last

According to Politico, the Mississippi Governor

has now made a forthright declaration about the events swirling around what some Southerners still call the War of Northern Aggression. “Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession,” Barbour told me Friday. “The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery,” he continued. “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did.”

Now, saying slavery was the cause of the South’s Lost Cause hardly qualifies as breaking news — it sounds more like “olds.” But for a Republican governor of Mississippi to say what most Americans consider obvious truth is news. Big news.

Are we living in some kind of bizarro world? Just think about that for a second and ask yourself, how is it possible that this “forthright declaration” from a national figure in the Republican party is treated at face value 150 years after the Civil War?

Even the normally arch Democracy in America blog is parsing the political significance of Barbour’s reckoning with history. Others are treating his admission with appropriate absurdity, such as this headline from New York Magazine:

Haley Barbour Admits That Abolishing Slavery Was a Good Thing

And this one slapped on at The Huffington Post:

Haley Barbour Endorses Union Victory in the Civil War

As for the reaction from Governor Barbour’s base, I hear that an update to this classic is in the works. Here’s a sneak preview of the revised lyrics:

Well I heard mister Young Barbour sing talk about her
Well, I heard ole Neil Haley put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young Haley Barbour will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

There’s this new line, too:

In Birmingham Biloxi, they love the governor (boo boo boo)

Well, we shall see.

Category: civil war, Mississippi, slavery

Will They Be Heard?

Two former EPA administrators (under Republican Administrations) take a trip down memory lane:

The air across our country is appreciably cleaner and healthier as a result of EPA regulation of trucks, buses, automobiles and large industrial sources of air pollution. There are three times the number of cars on the roads today as in 1970, yet they put out a small fraction of the pollution.

Likewise, American waterways have shown marked improvement. Lakes and rivers across the nation have shifted from being public health threats to being sources of drinking water as well as places for fishing and other forms of recreation. Lake Erie was declared dead in 1970 but today supports a multimillion-dollar fishery.

Amid the virulent attacks on the EPA driven by concern about overregulation, it is easy to forget how far we have come in the past 40 years. We should take heart from all this progress and not, as some in Congress have suggested, seek to tear down the agency that the president and Congress created to protect America’s health and environment.

I wonder if Tea Party Republicans would be more receptive if this plea was penned instead by James Watt and Gale Norton.

Category: environmental regulation, EPA

Congressional Climate Chum

Via Judith Curry, I see  there is an announcement for a new round of Capitol Hill-sponsored theatrics. The scheduled hearing is titled:

Climate Change: Examining the processes used to create science and policy

That’s going to be quite a show, given the deliberate bundling of science and policy. Roger Pielke Jr. should be able to feast on this one, while the witness list will provide fodder for one of those head-in-vice posts from this guy…just about any minute.

My view: anything that puts climate change in the busy headlines these days should probably be cheered by those who want to keep the issue alive in the public’s mind.

Category: climate change, climate policy, climate politics, climate science

The Upside to the GOP Targeting of William Cronon

Long before William Cronon rocked Wisconsin Republicans’ world, he rocked mine when I read his first book, Changes in the Land. It pretty much reoriented my intellectual framework. (Another journalist seems to have had a similar experience.) Here’s the 1984 NYT review of the book that launched Cronon’s career.

But I’m just a piker. There are famous, accomplished others who have been similarly influenced by Cronon’s work.

As for the current political attention he’s receiving from angry Republicans, it’s worth recalling that this isn’t the first time that Cronon has found himself in the crosshairs for something he’s written. As I discussed in a previous post, environmentalists gave him a good working over in the mid-1990s for this provocative essay. He struck a nerve then, and I think he’s right to assume he’s struck another nerve recently-with Wisconsin Republicans.

Most of the commentary in the media (regarding the current controversy) that I’ve read sides with Cronon’s view-that the FOIA request for his university emails is a politically motivated witch hunt. One notable exception is Jack Shafer at Slate, whose headline says it all:

There’s No Such Thing as a Bad FOIA Request

That’s a debate worth having, but with Cronon I see an upside to this ugly episode because as distinguished and well known in academia as he is, Cronon is now being discovered by a wider public. Consider this admission from Salon’s writer:

A week ago, I had never heard of Cronon. This is embarrassing, since it doesn’t take much digging around to discover that he is one of the most highly regarded historians in the United States (not to mention president-elect of the American Historical Association).

A commenter elsewhere also observes:

the  [Salon] author, Andrew Leonard mentions that he just purchased two of Cronon’s books; when I checked at Amazon, those two books were ranked something like #45 and #51 — not bad for history publications!!


So as much as I abhor the the Republican attempt to intimidate a critic, they have introduced a brilliant mind and gifted writer to a broader, worldwide audience. In doing so, they have also shined a spotlight on their own brass knuckle tactics. And before this is all over, they may have even ignited a useful debate on the appropriate use of FOIA.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman in his NYT op-ed column today, writes about “the Cronon affair”and makes a climate connection:

The demand for Mr. Cronon’s correspondence has obvious parallels with the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in e-mail records.

Category: Uncategorized