Does unusual weather cause more crime?

April 28, 2014 

The idea there’s a relationship between climate change and political instability or warfare is becoming prevalent. But what about crime? Will a changing climate and weather patterns have any impact on murders and robberies? One recent study, which focuses on India is not encouraging.

The working paper, by Lakshmi Iyer of the Harvard Business School and Petia Topalova of the International Monetary Fund, actually sets out to answer a different question — whether there’s a causal relationship between poverty and crime.

Such a relationship might seem obvious, but it’s been difficult for researchers to pin down.

Looking at regional data since the 1980s, the authors found that a “one standard deviation increase in log rainfall is associated with 3.6 percent lower total crimes per capita.”

They then compared the rain data with the income shocks caused by the lifting of India’s trade tariffs during the 1990s, which had a similar impact on crime numbers. In other words, it’s the loss of agricultural productivity and income during dry spells that’s causing people to commit more crimes, not some other endemic factor.

If weather patterns continue to become erratic, it could suggest that governments should expect more crime in response to weather shocks. “What matters for agricultural productivity is not average temperature as much as big spikes in temperature,” Iyer says. “If there are a number of days of very high temperature, that can have a bad effect even if average temperatures aren’t increasing very much.”

There is a silver lining to the result. “The fact that it’s working through income is actually good news for policymakers, because if you can create policies that compensate for the loss in income, you can avoid a rise in violence crime,” Iyer says. If it was some other factor, governments would have fewer options.

As India’s average incomes have increased, rates of violent crime have decreased. And even with a warming planet, global murder rates have not significantly increased with the exception of a few regions.

Many of climate change’s negative effects may now be unavoidable. But this may be one that it’s possible to prepare for.

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics.

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