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Rough Weather

September 7, 2014

Dark skies in Arlington

Here in Massachusetts the day to day temperatures have been close to those in Pune, India, my recent home away from home.  Humidity is much greater here … yesterday outside doing some errands the feeling was like being in Mumbai, 33 degrees C and 75% humidity.  Hereabouts weather often resolves itself sharply.  Around 6 pm the skies quickly darkened and as if a switch was flipped suddenly we had heavy rain and cannon-shot thunder, for about 30 mins.  After all was cool, calm and lightly breezy, the cloying touch of high humidity gone from the air.  This harsh weather was a pleasant diversion for myself and Kim; we sat on our back porch relaxing, sipping wine while the downpour drenched a few backyard grillers in our immediate neighborhood, or set dogs to yowling whenever the thunder cracked.

Weather on the other side of the world can do much worse than drench your cookout or scare the family pet.  In India and Pakistan the monsoon is not yet done and this past week more than 200 people perished in floods from powerful rains.  I still follow India and South Asia news and so I see these things as they happen, but I daresay most westerners know the danger the extremes of weather pose in that part of the world, perhaps remembering the Bangladesh floods of 1974 and 1984.

It’s common sense that variations in weather are more dangerous for people in rural India and for people in USA.  But, how much more dangerous exactly?  I came across an interesting paper on this very thing, Weather and Death in India (Burgess, Deschenes, Donaldson and

Greenstone, 2011).  The paper is math-intensive and I’ve only done a cursory reading, yet the methodology seems interesting.  The authors related day-to-day mortality reports to temperature (and other factors) and related variability in temperature to variability in mortality.  Here’s one of their graphs:

weather-mortality graphA baseline day has a temperature of 22 – 24 degrees C.  The blue line shows how mortality in the USA goes up or down, on average, on days of higher of lower temperatures.  This blue line is pretty flat; your chance of dying in the USA stays the same no matter the temperature.

The red line is rural India.  Lower temperatures have broad effects on mortality, but not at all levels.  But look at the higher side of the chart.  As the temperature increases to 26, then 30, and finally 36, mortality rate increases consistently.  (Note that the units here are the natural log of the mortality rate, not the mortality rate itself, so a change of 0.01 means quite a lot.)

Well, everyone seems to complain about the weather but no one does anything about it.  That’s not the Salazar way, though.  We’ve already taken initial steps towards getting a photovoltaic solar system for our home; in fact this coming week we have scheduled site visits from two contractors we are evaluating.  This expected PV system will certainly save us a lot of money and, I like to think at least, in a tiny way will lessen the risk of extreme weather for everyone.  More news on this when we get the detailed proposals.

Back to the weather and particularly the plight of farmers in India and South Asia I believe the proper way to think about this is based on a single word: Freedom.  In the USA we talk about freedom all the time; I need to be free to shout out whatever blather I wish, to own massive amounts of weaponry, to pay my workers as little as I can get away with, even to pollute because I think it is cool.  But the Indian farmer lacks a fundamental freedom we Americans have forgot we have: Freedom from weather.  Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist and native of Bangladesh, speaks about this at length in his book, Development as Freedom.  His argument there is the world’s poor suffer from “unfreedoms”; while ostensibly free to do what they want they are in fact without choices, they must labor in pre-determined ways or die; they are in fact if not in name, slaves: slaves to hunger, slaves to bosses, to bureaucrats, and to the weather.  At the end of his book, he cites famous lines by William Cowper:

Freedom has a thousand charms to show,
That slaves, howe’er contented, never

The “thousand charms” are choice.  For me I can be soaked by rain or not, depending on my mood.  Everyone deserves the choice of watching the weather – or not – without fear. 

Categories: Economics, Sundries
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