Episode #72: How is Climate Change Already Affecting Indian Monsoons (& People)?
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
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Brian: That's nice of you to say.
Quinn: Tell me what we're doing today, Brian.
Brian: Okay. This week's episode is talking about monsoons, and food, and most importantly, people, specifically the people of India. And who's our guest, Quinn?
Quinn: Dr. Deepti Singh. And she is from there, and she studies the conflicts of all of those things from over here and from over there. And we got a bit of an education today, and I really did love that. I feel ... Some of these conversations I feel like Neo in The Matrix a little bit. Plug it in and all of a sudden you're like, "Well, fuck, now I know that thing. And that feels pretty goddamn important."
Brian: Yeah. It's maybe my favorite thing about doing this, because I mean, I'm fine with it, but I love how much I get to learn every day.
Quinn: Yeah. And not every day, I mean you only come in every Thursday. But anyways, great conversation and, yeah, I think people are going to like Dr. Singh. Let's do this thing.
Brian: Let's just go listen to it.
Quinn: Let's just go do it, okay?
Quinn: Okay. Our guest today is Dr. Deepti Singh. And together we're going to ask, how is climate change already affecting Indian monsoons? And what does that mean for the people there and for the food that they grow, and the food that they eat, because people need to eat? Dr. Singh, welcome.
Dr Deepti Singh: Hi there.
Brian: We're so happy to have you. Thank you for being with us today.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah, I'm excited for this conversation.
Brian: We are too.
Quinn: Give it time.
Brian: If we could just start by, doctor, just telling everybody who you are, and what you do.
Dr Deepti Singh: I am an assistant professor in the School of the Environment at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington, not Canada.
Brian: Got it.
Quinn: Got it.
Dr Deepti Singh: And I do research on climate change impacts on extreme events, particularly focusing on monsoons. And I teach, I recently started teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on topics related to that.
Quinn: That is super cool.
Brian: Wow. Yeah, that's so great that you turned into teaching.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes. It's been fun. I've only ... This is my ... The ... I taught for the first time in the spring semester. It was an undergraduate class in the science and policy of climate change, and I think it went pretty well.
Quinn: Now what major does that fall under these days?
Dr Deepti Singh: For us it's-
Quinn: The department I guess.
Dr Deepti Singh: I mean, at WSU it's just called School of the Environment. I guess environmental science majors.
Quinn: All right. We'll take it. I'm glad that, that-
Brian: School and-
Brian: Yeah, that sounds pretty great. And of course before this conversation is over, we will have to know who your least favorite student and favorite student are.
Dr Deepti Singh: I'm not biased.
Quinn: [inaudible 00:04:10] Brian. All Brian's teacher said that too.
Brian: As a reminder for everyone, and you know Deepti. Well, I think we mentioned it before we started recording. But our goal here with this whole thing is to, we'll provide some context for our question or topic of the day here, and then dig into some action oriented questions, and steps that get to the heart of why we should care about it at all. And what we should all be doing about it, and to help, and improve it. Sound good?
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes.
Quinn: All right. Deepti, we start with one important question, and you cheated and listened to the other episodes, but instead of saying, tell us your entire life story, as fascinating as I'm sure that is, we'd like to cut to it, and ask Dr. Singh, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Dr Deepti Singh: I don't think I am vital to the survival of the species, but I think I ... Through my work, I'm contributing to making the lives of a few people slightly better, hopefully. And I'm hoping that my work kind of informs that ... Climate change is not something that one person can tackle. I feel like I'm part of a bigger community of people that are trying to educate the world about climate change, and trying to find a ways in which we can minimize the risk for people.
Quinn: That ... I mean, it sounds like a good idea, right Brian?
Brian: Seems important.
Quinn: Seems like she's pretty vital.
Brian: Seem pretty important.
Quinn: Well we thank you for what you're doing out there, it is necessary, certainly. Okay. Let's dig into some context for today. And again, sometimes these conversations are fairly wonky, sometimes they're just me spilling my feelings, or talking it out. This one, I feel it kind of falls in between. But let's dig into what we talk ... What we mean when we first of all talk about the word monsoon. When Americans or white people in general hear the word monsoon or if you're in Los Angeles, you decided it would seem cool to use the word monsoon to describe a very light drizzle that clogs up Laurel Canyon for two hours, it turns out that's not what it is, or really the way anyone that actually studies weather or climate uses it or describes it. And there seem to be sort of a variety of related definitions among the professions. But it seems mostly, and please correct me if I'm wrong here, to refer to the seasonal reversing of winds and the associated precipitation caused by differential heating between the land in question and the adjacent ocean. Is that feel about right?
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes. Though you kind of did the hard work for me if explaining what that is. You we're pretty ... You were ... That it was a pretty accurate definition of it. It's basically large scale system that brings rainfall to different regions predominantly in certain seasons. And that happens because of the seasonal reversal of winds as the northern hemisphere warms up, in the summer season the land becomes warmer than the ocean. The land in the northern hemisphere becomes warmer than the surrounding oceans. And that is one factor that influences the location and the strength of the winds that bring in all the moisture from the oceans to the land.
Quinn: All right. That's certainly helpful and much more detailed than my reading off of the internet. I [crosstalk 00:07:41]-
Dr Deepti Singh: And the same thing happens even in the southern hemisphere. Not that the ... Monsoons actually are not something that only affect South Asia, they are part of the climate system in South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Australia. The north ... There's a North American monsoon as well that affects the southwest.
Quinn: There you go.
Dr Deepti Singh: In July, I think July through September is the monsoon season there.
Quinn: Fascinating. You learn something new every day, Brian. I'm so glad we do this.
Brian: Me too.
Quinn: Sort of getting into, and again, these are literally just facts from the internet. I do try to learn as much as I can, and please just tell me where I'm wrong, or you can just hang up and leave, whichever feels like the right decision.
Brian: Please don't do that one.
Quinn: But why is ... One day I'm going to leave you. I guess getting into why the monsoon of South Asia, or specifically here that which affects the Indian subcontinent, so well known and so important? And there's a few reasons that I can tell that is pertinent to this conversation. But it is one of the ... It seems to be, again, from what I've been told, from Yahoo! Answers, it is one of the oldest and most anticipated in a number of ways, weather patterns on the planet, and I believe it runs from about June to September. Is that correct?
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes. It-
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah. It starts at the southern tip of the subcontinent in early June and then progresses through the entire sub continent by July. That'll set up over the entire region, and then it starts to retreat in late August, early September.
Quinn: Okay. And-
Dr Deepti Singh: There's one fun fact-
Dr Deepti Singh: Is that there are actually two monsoons. There's the summer monsoon and the winter monsoon. The summer monsoon is more well known one because it brings ... [inaudible 00:09:34] about 80% of the amount ... Or total annual rainfall to the region, if you look at the region as a whole. But the southern part of India actually gets about 50% of its rainfall from the winter monsoon as well. They're both important systems. And it's, again, it's the same thing. It's just the reversal of the winds, which for the peninsular part of India brings in rainfall from a different ocean, but it's the same system. Yes.
Quinn: Fascinating. There you go. I mean, look, Brian, we can't just leave this out.
Quinn: It's ... Even though it's like the stepchild that nobody wants to talk about, it's there and it matters. What really matters, and as you mentioned beforehand, and we're almost done with this little section, is that it wouldn't matter if this was blowing over just the Australian outback, right? There are 1.3 billion people living on the Indian subcontinent, and that's a lot of people that want and need to know if it's going to rain really fucking hard, and when, and for how long. And that's not even including nearby countries like Bangladesh, and Bhutan, and Nepal, and Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. And kind of getting into what we're talking about, this particular monsoon, from what I understand, can be a real bitch to predict. And it's vital, but from what I understand, a 10% increase can mean devastating floods, and a 10% shortage can mean droughts. But it's not just are people going to get rained on, it supplies so much of the irrigation for the food and the agriculture in those areas.
Quinn: From what I understand, 60% of the agriculture in central India is rain fed. And this agriculture employs about half of the Indian workforce. Excuse me. India has the highest net cropped area on the entire planet. But it's not just about their food and their specific health, it's the fact that their economy, which they're trying desperately to grow as their people grow, they export about $40 billion of agricultural products every year to 120 countries. That is a hell of a lot of, among other things, rice and sugar. But the planet is changing, and India is growing, and so are those other countries. It's not just the weather, it's not just the heat, it's not just the oceans that are all getting warmer, it's all connected. I want to dig into ... Go ahead, please.
Dr Deepti Singh: I was going to say, I grew up in India and I recollect when the monsoon season starts, the entire region just transforms. There's so much of a change and transformation in just the landscape as well as the activities that you see in the region. Agriculture ... And farmers wait till the monsoon comes for ... To plant their crops. Almost the entire agriculture in the region for a lot of the farmers is rain fed. And they have ... They're really dependent on the timing of this monsoon to plant their crops. And even a delay of a few weeks can really disrupt their agricultural activities. Yes, you're absolutely right about the monsoon predictions being a real challenge. It's just, I mean, the monsoons ... Just modeling the monsoons has been a challenge for several decades. And it's one of the most intensively researched monsoon systems, for one, because it affects so many people, but also it's just a really complex system. We have the Himalayan range to the north of the subcontinent, and until ...
Dr Deepti Singh: I mean, I think in our monsoon community, the ... What causes the monsoon is actually an open research question.
Quinn: That's crazy.
Dr Deepti Singh: It's just the Himalaya is a ... There's temperature gradient we talk about. How important is a Himalaya, the Himalayan range? How important is the Tibetan plateau to the monsoon? These are all things that we still don't understand.
Quinn: Sure. And this might-
Dr Deepti Singh: [crosstalk 00:13:49] researching it for decades.
Quinn: Right. And that's crazy. It's one of the oldest weather systems. But of course, like you said, you can't just discount the largest mountain range on the planet. It ... Those things inevitably do create their own weather. Is it enough to create this just incredibly powerful and comprehensive weather system, and is that changing as the areas around the Himalayas are getting warmer too? Look, oceans are getting hotter, so is the land, and the question is, what does that mean for India so far? And we've talked a little bit about this podcast, and maybe, Deepti, you can point us in the direction of someone we can talk to specifically about some of the heat things that are happening there with Indian farmers. As I alluded to, the heat is just incredible. They've had just crushing heat waves. I guess they said in the eastern Indian state just this week of ... I might ... I'm going to mangle this, Bihar.
Dr Deepti Singh: Bihar.
Dr Deepti Singh: Bihar.
Quinn: It's killed 184 people this season. They've had 33 days over 140 degrees, which is crazy. And it got up to a 45.2 Celsius, which I think is, like what, 112, 113, something terrible like that? It is obviously not just terrible for their health, but when 50% of your workforce is agriculture, that means you're supposed to be outside working and planting. And that is on ... It is obviously untenable. That is something I definitely want to get into more. But for now, let's talk about what it's doing for rainfall. Deepti, if you can kind of just finish getting us up to speed. How has climate change, from what we can tell, already affected the South Asian monsoon?
Dr Deepti Singh: Sure. I guess there are two questions then. The first one is how have the monsoons changed? And the second question is what's causing it, right?
Dr Deepti Singh: [inaudible 00:15:42] climate change, what is ... There are different factors that could influence that. The ... In terms of how the monsoon has changed over the last 60 to 70 years, we've seen that on the seasonal scale, if you look at the average amount of rainfall we get during the monsoon season over the heaviest parts of India, over those regions rainfall has actually declined. But the climatalogically drier parts of India, which is in the northwest, those regions have actually gotten a little wetter. The rainfall distribution across the region has changed.
Dr Deepti Singh: That ... And in addition to that, we've also seen an increase in day to day variability of rainfall, as well as an increase in extreme events, both heavy rainfall events as well as increases in the frequency of dry spells. And all of these factors have an effect on agricultural activities.
Quinn: How recently have, I guess ... Again, it's two questions. How recently have these changes begun to occur? And I guess how long did it take us to notice them, besides just thinking it was year to year variations?
Dr Deepti Singh: I want to say that the first paper that documented this weakening of the monsoon circulation and this decline in rainfall over the region that typically gets the heaviest rainfall, that first paper was I think published in 2006 in the journal Science. But a number of studies since then have looked at the rainfall record for the last seven years for which we have data, and shown that ... Shown these changes in rainfall patterns as well as different metrics of extreme events that matter to people. And the impact of changes in the monsoon on extreme rainfall events is one of the most widely studied topics for the region. And numerous papers have shown that there has been an increase in the intensity of rainfall pretty much across the entire region. Even though some areas on average have become drier, and some areas have become wetter.
Dr Deepti Singh: And this is something ... We've looked at the observational record of rainfall for the last seven years, but if you talk to farmers, which is something I did a few years ago, they all say the same thing. "Yes. Rainfall patterns have changed. We see more intense rainfall events with longer dry periods and dispersed between them." And that's actually a really accurate reflection. They're not reading our papers, but it's a very accurate reflection of what the data shows.
Quinn: Well, I mean, they're living that life, right? I mean-
Dr Deepti Singh: Absolutely.
Quinn: If anyone should be in touch with it ... And again, it's not just ... We look at like the east coast of North America and you're tracking four seasons, and you can kind of tell if like, this winter has been warm or another, but they're in ... The bulk of their economy for decades and decades and centuries has been based on a specific weather system that can come down to being days earlier, or days late, and variations in volume. It seems like, of course they should be that tuned in to it as much as the papers we produce here are about it.
Dr Deepti Singh: Absolutely. It's their main source of livelihood. They ... Their lives revolve around, for a lot of farmers, the small-scale farmers, their lives revolve around the crops that they produce during the monsoon season. That's their main source of livelihood.
Brian: That's wild. I never, I ... That this is very ... It's just very interesting. I never even knew that the monsoon was something that ... The yearly monsoon was something that everybody needed for agriculture. It's very interesting.
Quinn: I don't think you're alone in that, but more people need to understand when 1.3 billion people plus are already being very much affected by this.
Brian: Yeah. Doctor, it's obviously changing, and again for everybody listening, climate change is here. What has India done to wean itself off the seasonal monsoon, if it can even? And what's the state of India's irrigation infrastructure currently?
Dr Deepti Singh: Those are good questions. I'm not sure I can answer both of those, but I think we were talking ... In the question we were talking about previously is, what is ... How is climate change affecting the monsoons? And we need to understand why these changes have occurred before we can understand how to adapt to those changes. Because we need to know how things will change in the future. And that's something that from a scientific point of view has been a challenge for several reasons. One of the things you mentioned earlier was that, it's one ... It's an area with the largest fraction of crop lands. That major transformation from national vegetation to crop lands, and the amount of irrigation that large parts of India have, especially the northern parts of the states of Punjab, then the Indo-Gangetic basin basically has so much irrigation throughout the monsoon season.
Dr Deepti Singh: That these activities, this intensification of agriculture, as well as the expansion of agriculture, is one of the factors that's affected the monsoon. Greenhouse gasses is what we generally think about when we're thinking of what's affecting climate change. We don't ... That's the main thing we talk about. But for areas like South Asia as well as East Asia, that's not the primary factor that's caused a change in climate in the region. Agriculture is one of them, greenhouse gases is a factor that's affecting the region. And one of the other main factors are aerosols. Aerosols was a thing in North America decades ago. And with the Clean Air Act, we've kind of cleaned up the air, and we don't have to worry about aerosols as much. But aerosols, which are basically tiny little particles in the atmosphere that interact with the incoming sunlight, these particles have the highest concentrations over the South Asian and East Asian subcontinents.
Dr Deepti Singh: And are the main ... One of the major sources of climate change over the region. And we're not doing anything to change that. We're still burning fossil fuels. These particles come from fossil fuels, and biomass burning for a clear ... The burning of the agricultural waste, as well as in a lot of areas people use biomass like wood for cooking. All of these factors lead to these particles in the atmosphere that have affected the monsoon, and we are not changing those systems anytime soon.
Quinn: That's not a great story.
Quinn: And I know ... And this is a separate conversation, but China has been such a big influence attempting to build, and building so many coal plants in the area. At the same time, I do know that India has made tremendous strides when it comes to solar and wind. [inaudible 00:23:40]signed seem pretty extensive deals, but obviously, and this is the argument that's been going on for 20 years now with China and India and other countries that are just ... That didn't really participate in the Industrial Revolution in the 20th century like a lot of the western nations did, which was like, "Well we got to all use cheap coal and oil, why don't they get to?" And that's a very understandable question. Unfortunately the answer is like, "Well we can't anymore, unfortunately." And it's frustrating to see China, which again, similarly is ... They're having all kinds of of clean energy success, still building and relying on so much coal, and pushing that abroad.
Dr Deepti Singh: Well, we can't really blame them because I mean it is the cheapest and quickest way to get energy and food [inaudible 00:24:27] ... I mean, well energy and electricity access to-
Quinn: That's why we used it.
Dr Deepti Singh: The people. Exactly. But for these countries cleaner energy is not just a matter of carbon emissions, it's also a matter of human health impacts. And it's something that ... Transitioning to renewable energies will not just reduce our emissions, but also have numerous health benefits, direct and indirect. Because these particles that I was mentioning to you, they're not healthy. They lead to all kinds of diseases, and can affect ... I mean, they are already affecting the human population. The air pollution is one of the leading causes of deaths in these regions.
Quinn: God. I mean Delhi is just ... It's unreal what's happening there.
Dr Deepti Singh: Absolutely.
Quinn: But at the same time it's happening everywhere. I mean, downtown London is a nightmare. Los Angeles still, is it better than the '70s? Sure. But it still has the worst air in the country. I think it's eight or nine out of the top 10 most polluted cities in America are still in California, which everyone says is the green state. And it's like, "Well, guess what, not really." And I feel like somebody made this point recently in the media, which is something we've somehow forgotten about with all the warming, and the flooding, and the burning, and all that, which is, they were talking about the transportation issues, and the cars, and issues like that. Which is again, it's not just about the carbon coming out and heating up the air, when your streets are filled with gasoline cars, your young children and old people and everybody are taking in these particles that are so incredibly small, and so incredibly dangerous called PM2, basically.
Quinn: And like you said, it's not just about the heat. It is ... There're immediate health issues. And I can never figure out the right way to phrase this, but you hope that whether it's in America, or the UK, or Madrid, they just banned cars downtown, or in India, or in Shanghai, that if we're not going to do something about the heat, then hopefully the immediate health issues that everyone is susceptible ... And I mean there's people that are much more susceptible, the folks that have to deal with all of these things in their neighborhood. Like in Los Angeles, we still literally have oil drilling next to schools. You hope that those are the things that move the needle to get people to take some action. Because it's shocking and it's immediate, the cardiovascular issues and the cancer issues that are happening in such great numbers in some of these places.
Dr Deepti Singh: Absolutely. I mean, one of the ... There are a couple of factors there. Of course, some of ... There are these local sources of emissions, but also the metrology of an area can affect the accumulation of these particles in the atmosphere. I mean, you were mentioning that California has still ... Some of the cities in California still has some of the highest concentrations of these particles, but it's also because the metrology of these regions. It's not just ... I mean, of course there are way too many vehicles on the roads. But in, you mentioned Delhi, and you ... I think most people have seen these images of Delhi in the winter where you basically can't see a few feet ahead of you. And there's no doubt too many people living in Delhi, too many cars on the road, but that pollution that affects the region, affects Delhi in the winter, or fall and early winter, is basically coming from at all the agricultural burning that's happening north of there in Punjab. And that's brought downwind from there by the predominant wind patterns.
Quinn: Interesting. Yeah. And it makes you go like, "Oh, well that really sucks for Delhi. Why should they be at the end of that?" But it just also says like, "This is untenable." There's so much of the pollution, not all of it, but so much of the pollution in Los Angeles comes from the port of Los Angeles. Which I believe is somewhere in the top five largest ports in the world.
Brian: Yes. I was going to say it's one of the dirtiest [crosstalk 00:28:52]-
Quinn: And if ... I don't want to simplify how difficult it is to make a port that large. I don't think people who've never been to one of these understand how large and how much traffic these things get. How hard it is to turn that ship around, terrible pun.
Quinn: Yeah, I'm sorry. It is difficult, but when one thing is such a huge source of it, it just goes like, "Why does everyone else have to suffer because of it?"
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah. And in Delhi actually, about 15 to 20 years ago, within the city, most of the public transportation changed from gasoline based fuels to compressed natural gas. It's slightly cleaner than burning these heavier fuels. And it's ... It actually has helped a little bit with the air quality, but I think, that there's also been a simultaneous increase in people's personal vehicles, and those run on gasoline. That kind of made up for whatever benefits we got from the earlier policy changes.
Quinn: Let's pivot a little bit and talk about food here. How are the, again, since we've seen these changes already happening, how are the annual crop cycles being effected? And what further changes do folks like you who study it, and the people on the ground there see coming? What feels inevitable? What's happened, and what feels inevitable down the next five, 10 years?
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah, that's a ... There's so many aspects to that question.
Quinn: However you want to deal with it, please.
Dr Deepti Singh: Again, I want to bring us back to that ... To what I mentioned a little while ago about, we think about greenhouse gases as being the most important factor in causing climate change. But these aerosol particles actually have had a stronger influence on crop production than changes associated with the changes in temperature and precipitation in the region. There are a couple of studies that have come out in the last few years that have shown, that particularly for wheat and rice that these aerosol particles have actually caused a decline of about 30 ... 20 to 30%-
Quinn: Holy shit.
Dr Deepti Singh: In yields. Yields have gone up because of the green revolution we've ... There's been a lot of technological improvement, access to irrigation, all of that. But the presence of these aerosol particles in the atmosphere, because they reduce the amount of radiation, or and the sunlight reaching the surface, that has affected crop yields to a pretty substantial degree. And that-
Brian: Did you say 30%?
Dr Deepti Singh: 20 to 30% for ... A-
Dr Deepti Singh: Approximately 20% for rice, and a little over 30% for wheat. And this is largely because of these aerosol particles, if you look at India as a whole. And these factors, and this is not just one study showing that, there are multiple studies that have shown that these air pollutants are ... Have had a stronger influence in areas like India and China where the concentration of these particles is the highest. And climate change is happening, no doubt, but these factors have actually already affected yields to a greater degree than climate has. But climate variability, the year to year variability, that we experience like droughts, they have affected a lot of people. I mean the small-scale farmers that are the most vulnerable, that the marginal and small-scale farmers that are most vulnerable to climate variability, because as I mentioned their livelihoods depend on what they grow during the monsoon season.
Dr Deepti Singh: Even a few weeks of delayed monsoon onset or the timing of the first monsoon rains, can affect what they grow in that season. And if they can't grow rice, which is the main cash crop, then that kind of leads to severe economic losses for them. A number of crops have ... They ... Depending on ... Because of this variability in rainfall that we've been seeing more and more during the monsoon season, a number of crops, even if the monsoon comes on time, if we see a dry spell early on, or we see heavy rainfall later on in the season that can damage crops. And we've seen that intense rainfall events just totally wipe out entire fields and cause dramatic losses of crops in several different parts of India.
Dr Deepti Singh: And that leaves these farmers in debt because ... I've ... I did some fieldwork in certain parts of India. The story you might change from place to place, but a lot of the farmers that I spoke to, which were mostly in central India, they start their season by getting out a loan ... And their interest rates are high, they're close to 5% a month. These ... And they are getting loans from private, not from government institutions. They're getting it from people. And their interest rates are really high. You can imagine that if they get this loan in the beginning of the season, and are not able to pay it off by the end of the season, that that can accumulate, and it pushes them into debt.
Quinn: And like you said, and I know this is obviously very important to you and to everyone, crops don't plant themselves. These people are just in an incredibly tough situation. This is not some water system that can be controlled. Again, it's not in the US we talk about, "Oh, we had a cold winter and sometimes the snow comes in December, and sometimes it comes in February." This article about Bihar, we're seeing that, not only has it killed 184 people, 78 since Saturday, it's been 33 days above 40 celsius, 115 degrees or so. But at the end they note, the southwest monsoon is running about 11 days late. And when you're on a 33 day heat streak, this, the world's most powerful monsoon being 11 days late, really fucking mean something. And-
Dr Deepti Singh: Right. Exactly.
Quinn: The same news to come out about Chennai, am I saying that right?
Dr Deepti Singh: Chennai, yeah.
Quinn: As they're, I think it's 11 million people there, two or three million more than New York, and they are effectively out of water. And again, it's just ... It's devastating. These-
Dr Deepti Singh: Right. This gives you some indication of just how important those monsoon rains are. Because they are important not just for agriculture, but also for water availability for much of the region.
Brian: Doctor, what has the Indian government done, or what are they doing to support farmers in this just unpredictable and changing environment, if there's anything that they can do?
Dr Deepti Singh: Sure. I feel like I'm going to get into trouble for-
Brian: Perfect. These are our favorite answers.
Quinn: You answer it however you feel fit.
Dr Deepti Singh: Well, I'm going to start with the positives. I think government does ... They acknowledge that this is an issue, that the farmers that aren't producing all of the food that we consume are effected by climate change. And they have programs that I ... Some of the programs I learned about, that they are trying to get ... They are trying to provide loans to farmers, provide aid to farmers when there are extreme events like droughts, or if their crops get effected by intense rainfall, or flooding. The ... There are programs like that, that are available from the national government. The issue is, the farmers being able to access that. They haven't reached all the farmers yet. There are programs like this that are available, and I heard of some pretty ... Really positive stories in certain states where NGOs we're helping farmers figure out how to access the aid that they would get in a drought year.
Dr Deepti Singh: Because farmers don't know how to do that. They don't know how to go to a bank, and set up an account, and get a loan. Or if they do, there's corruption that's happening at those stages that's preventing them from doing that. The government is trying to improve those channels and provide access to the farmers. One of the issues though is that, it's not going to be some ... It's not going to be a subtle change that's going to help these farmers. They've been growing crops that are not suitable for the climate in that region, and I see that. There are a few people I collaborate with at Columbia University, [inaudible 00:38:10] and Kyle Davis. And they've been doing amazing work showing that rice, which is one of the main crops that's grown there, because it's a cash crop and it's exported, it's important for the economy, that is more sensitive to climate variations than the traditional grains that people used to grow and consume. Millets, maize, sorghum, these are grains that are ...
Dr Deepti Singh: They're more resilient to climate variability, they don't need as much irrigation. And yet our farmers are forced to grow rice because that is what is incentivized in the market. And that's what they're going to continue to grow unless there's a overhaul in the entire food production system there.
Quinn: That's interesting. Now, I mean, that's apples to oranges of course, but I think about how the US has become such a monocrop culture with corn. And we basically have one part of our country that grows most of the actual nutritious vegetables, and it's running out of water. India is, I know they are working to diversify their economy. Again, it's a huge ship to turn around, agriculture is still such a massive piece of the puzzle. And I was thinking about this last night, and this might be off, but go with me here. I want to make kind of a comparison to another industry, not even a region because it's more spread out, facing massive sort of inevitable upheaval, which is oil production and oil exports. And the countries that have for 100 years survived on that in their economy.
Quinn: I think of Algeria, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Sudan, Venezuela, for each of those countries, oil accounts for over 90% of their exports, period. But we are collectively fucking kind of, or at least we desperately need to, weaning ourselves off of that shit as humanly possible, as soon as humanly possible. They along with obviously some much bigger names like Russia and Saudi Arabia, they've built economies off of a ... And economies and industries and cultures off of a one time, infinitely valuable, but it turns out finite resource, dangerous resource, one whose time is coming to an end. And some of those are ... Some of those economies have completely fallen apart. Some of them have made bets that didn't work out. Some are working on diversification, and some are fighting tooth and nail against it despite these enormous global consequences.
Quinn: And I'm curious kind of what you feel like is, what the next 10 to 20 years looks like for India as far as diversifying, not necessarily away from agriculture, but finding maybe things that are more predictable or other ways to make money and participate in the world economy without completely, understandably freaking out because the monsoon is 11 days late, or more or less, or the volume is less. I'm curious what your thoughts are there. Maybe that analogy doesn't make any sense, but there's just-
Dr Deepti Singh: No, it does.
Quinn: Going to be such upheaval.
Dr Deepti Singh: Absolutely. No, it totally, it sense. I think in terms of what the economy is doing, sure, there are ways to diversify, they already are diversifying. And there has been a migration of people from these agricultural areas, from these rural areas, towards cities in search of jobs. There has ... There's already been that move away from agriculture for some of these reasons. The climate related reasons, but for several other reasons. Because it's people want to move to cities, and be part of the kind of new world. And that's happening and they're ... Some of ... There are several ... Like the tech industry is growing. I mean, it's ... There's so many major cities in India where the tech industry is huge, and that's definitely contributing to India's economy. In addition to that, just from the energy sector, the ... Coal, they're definitely using a lot of coal, but they are also making strides in using solar and wind energy. I think some [inaudible 00:42:42] ...
Dr Deepti Singh: India has a couple of really large solar farms, and that's ... There's ... That does create jobs for people. Construction is another huge source of income for a lot of people. And these factors, the economy itself will adapt and will diversify for ... I think my concern is more, what about all of those people whose lives ... Who all they know is to grow crops. There are millions of people that, that's all they have done, they have not gained other skills. They do ... I mean, we're talking about their main sources of livelihood, agriculture is one of them. And then they do tend to do, some of them tend to migrate for other kinds of labor activities. I think the priority should be more, how can we make agriculture in this region more resilient? And there are ... Because the lives of so many people ... Because it's not just the economy that matters, it's the lives and livelihoods of these millions of people who were affected by this. And it's also, somebody has to produce the food, right?
Quinn: Right, exactly. And-
Dr Deepti Singh: And-
Quinn: That these things don't plant themselves.
Brian: Like we, yeah, like we said.
Dr Deepti Singh: Exactly. And we can have larger farms, and change kind of change the agricultural system and make it more mechanized, but that's not the answer. Because a lot of farmers they're not just growing things for the market, for the international market, it also ... There're a lot of subsistence farmers in the region as well. And their nutrition, their access to food, all of that depends on making agriculture more resilient to climate change. I think that's where the priority should be. For the rich and for the ... For India, for the Indian economy, sure, diversification in terms of other sources of income can help. But for food production and for all of these people, I think there needs to be a different focus.
Quinn: And I feel like that's so ... The general idea is such a big question going forward, which is, whether it's through artificial intelligence or automation, or again, shifting away from agriculture in certain ways, we have to proactively imagine, and question, and come up with practical ways to support these people that have been doing this for so long. Whether it's enabling them to remain as subsistence farmers, or helping to transition them into the new economy, or finding ways to encourage them to be innovators on their own. It's, if you ... If we don't support these people, if we ... 50% of an economy of 1.3 billion people is facing massive upheaval. The whole world is affected.
Dr Deepti Singh: Absolutely.
Brian: Yeah, that's ... That was ... That's ...
Quinn: Go ahead, please.
Brian: Go ahead, sorry.
Dr Deepti Singh: One of the ... One change that I have seen happening, which I think gets to what you were saying, is education and education access. You were asking what the government is doing for these farmers. And there are programs that incentivize attending school, so that's, at early education is totally free in India, up to the age of 14, I believe. And by providing meals during the day for children, more and more people are actually sending their children to school. They're educating their children and so maybe that they might ... If their lives are still so dependent on agriculture, at least their children would not be in that same state.
Brian: I mean, we love hearing that.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah. I think education and is real. And by providing meals to children in these schools, they're also helping maintain their ... The ... Providing them access to nutritional food, not just food. Nutritious, sorry, not nutritional. Yeah.
Quinn: The point is made though.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah.
Quinn: Not just garbage.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes.
Brian: And just to run back to what Quinn said about sort of this affecting the whole world, why should what's happening over there matter to Americans and everybody in the Western Hemisphere. I mean, we've got listeners all over the world, but we're mostly on this side of the prime meridian.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah. I wish you just idea that of millions of people are being affected that they're ... That are ... That so many people are in crisis in the rest of ... In this region. I think a lot of people are ... I don't know if people have heard about the farmer suicide crisis in India.
Quinn: It's incredible.
Dr Deepti Singh: Where so many farmers are being pushed to this because of the debts that they're in. I wish these things would inspire people to care. But if that doesn't inspire you and motivate you to care, I think just the fact that it affects our food system. As you mentioned earlier in the introduction, so much of the food that's produced there is exported to other regions. The US also imports food from India. The food prices, the global food prices, affect all of us. Right here maybe the change in price may not be that significant, but for people for lower income and middle class ... Middle income people, it can have. It can still be a large burden on them, any change in fluctuations in the global food prices. And any disruption to agriculture in these major grain producing areas will affect us through food prices and food availability.
Quinn: I guess I can empathize a little bit where it's hard for people to grasp the scope of ... I mean, that's one of our biggest issues with food, because nobody knows where the food comes from. And we do a terrible job of both providing and growing nutritious food, and also educating folks on where it comes from, and why it comes from there, and why it can only come from there, or why it used to come from here and it doesn't, what our changes are, yada, yada. I don't think most Americans have any idea that 80% of the corn we grow goes to animal feed, or the 75% of our antibiotics goes to animal. It's so complicated, and is like a good 20 episodes of conversations, and we've had a few. But then taking into account like, "Oh wait, now I have to think about India?" It's like, "Well, where do you ... We don't grow rice, where do you think that that comes from?"
Quinn: I get it, it's enormous, it's complicated, and sometimes it makes you want to put your head in the sand, but it does matter. And things are changing so much there, they're ... You look at the Central Valley in California where it is ... The ground is sinking and the people ... The air is terrible, and they're running out of drinking water, and it is where we grow something like 80% of our most nutritious foods. We don't grow them, nor can we grow them in so many other places. And people go, "Oh, California is running out of water." It's like, "Well, guess what? You're fucked. That's where your food from." And it's the same thing with India.
Quinn: What happens when, like you said, rice is down, the crop is down 20, 30%. The scope of that is just enormous. And what if that becomes, in a planet that ... They just said this week is going to be up ... We'll be at I think 10.9 billion people, which is less than they thought, but that's still two and a half billion more than we've got now. And rice being down 30% is not a great start.
Dr Deepti Singh: Well, it's ... Food definitely ... Food is only be one of the factors that affects us. There are other other reasons why we should care. One of them is, we are already seeing climate induced migration from different countries. I'm not saying people from India are migrating here because of climate change there, but it's happening at our borders here in the US. And it's happening in Europe, and it's going to be more ... It's going to become a pretty large issue pretty quickly. And it's ... That affects national security. And it's ... That's ... Another reason why we should care is because, if the lives and livelihoods of people in areas that are more severely affected by climate change are going to become extremely difficult, they're going to move. And it is part of the responsibility of countries that have caused this change, because the US is still one of the major contributors if you would think of cumulative emissions, and the US is still leading in that. And-
Quinn: God. Yeah, there's a graph that someone created last month that's sort of, it might be a GIF, I'll send it to you and we'll put in the show notes, of cumulative emissions basically of all time. But mostly because the time that matters is like the last 150 years. And it is, yeah, of course China's been going crazy the past 10 years, but it's not even close. And you see countries like Indonesia and the way they're already suffering, and India, and you go like, "But wait a minute, they haven't fucking done anything to contribute to this."
Dr Deepti Singh: Well, yes. And even with China, yes they are, right now if you look at annual emissions, they're pretty close to what the US is doing. But if you think about where those emissions are being consumed, that is not happening in China, that's happening in the Western world. Who should be responsible for those emissions? I think that's a difficult question to address, but those emissions, if the consumption of those emissions is still happening in the US and in Europe, then they're kind of responsible. That's my opinion, I guess. And that's one of the ... The responsibility for these kind of climate change that's happening elsewhere in the world is something we should care about because we have caused that problem.
Brian: Yeah. It's almost like we should own up to it and take responsibility for our actions or something.
Dr Deepti Singh: I mean the per-
Quinn: It's almost as if.
Dr Deepti Singh: I mean the per capita emissions of somebody in the US is about seven to eight times higher than what it is in India, even now. There's some responsibility for that, and that actually it's not just a moral thing it's also, when there are negotiations happening between different countries, this is something they talk about. The historical responsibility of different countries for the climate change that we're experiencing now. And actually one of the things that I worked on during my PhD was actually developing methods to attribute extreme events to human activities or not, or natural causes. And that directly helps us understand how much of a role climate change has played in climate change as well as in extreme events. Sorry, what how much of a role human activities have played in the climate change in the extreme events that we experience.
Quinn: And that's the question.
Brian: The big question.
Dr Deepti Singh: We can say ... By now we can pretty well, with a lot of confidence, say that there are a number of extreme events that human activities are directly responsible for.
Brian: Right. And let's, like we like we mentioned before, let's dig into what we can do, what we humans can do to take some action and actually do something about what we've done, and specifically here to support your emission. We like to talk about how we can do that with our voice, our vote, and our dollar. With our voice, what can ... What could ... What are the big actionable specific questions that we can all be asking of our representatives that will help you and support you?
Dr Deepti Singh: Sure. I think the most important thing people can do and the questions they can ask is actually talk about climate change and the impact it's having in different parts of the world. Talk to friends, your family, they're difficult conversations to have, but educate people, and do outreach and talk to your communities. And just learn about what is going on in the rest of the world, because we're so focused on what's happening here in the US. And I ... For our ... Because I remember during Hurricane Harvey, that affected Texas, there was a major crisis in the US but it was also the one of the worst floods in South Asia. It was affecting-
Brian: Right. That's right. Right.
Dr Deepti Singh: Many people. Millions of people were displaced, thousands of people died, and then I think New York Times had one article about it. We need to keep ourselves aware of what's going on in the rest of the world. How is the rest of the world affected by climate change? How are they dealing with it? And just having those day to day conversations is important, because it's an issue that's affecting people here as well as in other parts of the world. It's already something that's affecting us. And I think it's important to ask your representatives what they're doing to cause ... To create change in the economy here, and to ask about how they're changing the infrastructure or what plans they have to mitigate climate change. And also what are ... How are they considering climate change as part of their plan when they're in office?
Quinn: Well, that sound about right-
Brian: I love it.
Quinn: Yeah. And I'm going to try to dig into a little bit what existing federal programs there are as far as any support we send that way, because I know we have military things and things like that. But I want to dig into that, I'm curious, and let's see if we can put that in the show notes, or mark it for a discussion later. Brian, go ahead. Keep going.
Dr Deepti Singh: Sure.
Brian: Yeah. Deepti, and what about their dollar, any specific places that we can be sending our money to help people bring awareness?
Dr Deepti Singh: I think supporting research, and I'm not saying this is something you need to do directly, but supporting research and supporting and making sure that research in this area is funded, which is again something you can do through the people you elect into office, that is important. Directly though, again, as I mentioned, being aware of the crises that are happening that generally need international aid. Just this year, Mozambique, Malawi, and I am blanking on the other country, they were affected by two cyclones, two intense cyclones within a single month, within like 30 days of each other. And that is leading to a huge crisis in the area. If you have money that you would like to spend or give away, there are people that are in need of this. And there are organizations that are on the ground that are helping these people. I try to support them as much as I can. And that's something people can do, is learning about these ... Reading about these crises and figuring out what is going on.
Dr Deepti Singh: And not just thinking about what's happening there today, but when a crisis happens, the impacts of those crises actually last weeks to months, and continuing to follow those. Like that crisis in Africa is still going on. The cyclones happened in March, I believe.
Quinn: Right. And we've ... They're mostly out of the news cycle.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes. But the crisis is still there, people are still in need. There's major food insecurity in the area. And the ... And the organizations that are on the ground there can definitely use your support.
Quinn: Yeah. We had a great conversation. I'll send you the link too with a nurse who is bouncing back and forth between really two wonderful situations, which isn't the Ebola situation in the DRC, and Mozambique or Madagascar, and it's just like, wow.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yeah, wow.
Quinn: Yeah. Indeed.
Dr Deepti Singh: I wonder if she's there right now, that she's probably dealing with all the outbreak of cholera and stuff in that region.
Quinn: Yeah. I mean, it's inevitable. It's a ... You saw it happen in Haiti, it's when there's a lot of water bad things happen. Brian, bring us home.
Brian: Let's do this. First of all, thank you so, so much, Deepti, being here with us today. We really, really appreciate it.
Dr Deepti Singh: Thank you.
Quinn: Yeah, it's-
Brian: You've opened up my eyes.
Brian: Yeah. And, yeah, we just have a last few questions. Quinn likes to call it a lightning round.
Quinn: It's not.
Brian: Well, get ready for the opposite of that.
Quinn: It's not the opposite, it just needs a different title.
Quinn: Deepti, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change, or the power to do something meaningful?
Dr Deepti Singh: I can tell you when I decided I was going to try to do that.
Quinn: Let's hear it.
Dr Deepti Singh: I was ... Before I moved to the US, I moved to the US in 2008, before that I lived in Mumbai for a couple of years, and I just, I really ... I saw the effect that rainfall variability, floods have on the people that are living there. They're ... The impacts are dramatic, every season, whether it's extreme or not. We were talking about cholera and these waterborne diseases and that's ... I was there when there was the flood in 2005, and that's kind of what just pushed me to decide I'm going to do something to help this issue.
Quinn: That makes a lot of sense. Deepti, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Dr Deepti Singh: This is not one person, but there was an amazing group of people that I had the privilege of being part of, they are the Grist Fixers. Have you heard about Grist?
Quinn: Yeah, for sure.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes. And I was part of their 2019 cohort, and I got to meet the amazing people that are part of that group a few weeks ago. They have done ... They've not just ... I mean they've definitely inspired me, but they've also influenced the way I think about the work I'm doing.
Quinn: That's awesome. I know we've talked to a few of those folks. Do you have any favorites, any folks you feel like, "Oh my God, they would be a pretty cool to talk to."
Dr Deepti Singh: Well there are two people that I think are ... They're doing really exciting work and somewhat non nontraditional, but they're trying to connect people to nature. They're working in this field of bringing people of color, or bringing education and awareness and helping people connect with nature. Jenny Bruso, she's actually in Portland, and I went on one of her hikes that she organizes. Her group is called Unlikely Hikers. She is wonderful. And E.J. Golding. I can send you their information and their links. I think that's a really nice way to make people care about the environment, if you're out in it, and you're experiencing it. I think they're wonderful. The other person that I would suggest is Benji Backer, have you heard of him?
Dr Deepti Singh: We talk about how the country is so polarized right now on this issue of climate change, but he is actually a conservative who is, I think he's leading the American Conservative Coalition. And he is trying to basically rally young conservatives around environmental issues, because surprisingly we don't hear about this often, but they care about the environment. They ... For them environment is an important issue, and he's trying to get people together around that, and hopefully we will have a less divisive generation in a few years.
Quinn: Boy, wouldn't that be swell?
Brian: That sounds wonderful. Let's do that.
Quinn: Yeah. I just saw a stat recently that said for something like 75% of ... Not 75 people, something about ... I'll ball take them. 75% of that folks identify as being Republican or Conservative, between 18 to 36, they say climate change is going to be important part of their vote in 2020, and I was just shocked, but over the moon.
Brian: Wow. Yeah.
Quinn: I'll take it. All right, Brian.
Quinn: Let's take it home man.
Brian: Sure. Deepti, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed by all of this?
Dr Deepti Singh: I usually leave my office, and I go hang out with my dog, and take her out on a beautiful hike.
Quinn: We're going-
Quinn: To need more information. What kind of dog? I need pictures-
Brian: What's your dog's name?
Quinn: I need a name.
Dr Deepti Singh: I am happy to provide pictures. I think her picture is in every picture of mine that is on the internet.
Quinn: As it should be.
Dr Deepti Singh: She's a pitbull mix. She's a rescue from New York. I got her about three and a half years ago. Adopted her when I lived there in New York, and I've had her for three and a half years. She's a beautiful pitbull mix, and yes, I will gladly send you pictures of her.
Quinn: Perfect. Can't have enough.
Brian: We love it. How do you consume the news, doctor?
Dr Deepti Singh: Through [inaudible 01:05:19] ... This is going to make me sound terrible, but I get a lot of my news from late night comedy shows.
Brian: Love it.
Quinn: That's amazing.
Brian: What's wrong with that?
Dr Deepti Singh: And The New York Times.
Brian: See, there you go, a nice balance.
Dr Deepti Singh: Podcasts.
Quinn: So many podcasts.
Brian: Beautiful. All right, if-
Quinn: I'll ask the last one.
Brian: If you could ... The second to last one, if you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
Dr Deepti Singh: Actually the book I'm reading right now is called Inside of a Dog. And it is focused on a dog, but it also is this broader ... It's helped me think more broadly about how to connect with people, which is through understanding what matters to people. And it would be great for a leader to understand that there is a way to connect different people that have different bubbles around them and different things they care about. And it's important to kind of do that for everybody that's part of their ... That everybody that they are trying to lead.
Brian: Yeah, that sounds like a book that he needs, absolutely.
Quinn: It feels pretty necessary. It feels like a book you need, Brian.
Quinn: Deepti, where-
Brian: That's not [crosstalk 01:06:37]-
Quinn: Can our listeners follow you on the internet?
Dr Deepti Singh: I am on Twitter, ClimateChirper.
Dr Deepti Singh: That is my handle.
Dr Deepti Singh: Yes. And I think that's mostly it. I mean, I generally, if I have any publications I ... I mean I have a website, but it's kind of ... I mean you ... And I'm happy to share that link. It's most of my papers are on there, most of the outreach I do is on there, and ... But I generally keep Twitter up to date on what I'm doing.
Quinn: Well, Brian will be watching your every move, it'll be great. Deepti, thank you so much for your time today, for providing us with so much of an education on what is happening to, and with, and for those people over there, so many of them. And I know you have a special connection to it, and I think ... And I hope the rest of us realize that they do too, in a different way, but it is necessary to understand what is happening there and will continue to happen there, as we imagine what can happen here with our own industries, and our own food, and our own farmers as things continue to change.
Dr Deepti Singh: Plus thank you for this wonderful and challenging conversation, and for all the other conversations that you're having.
Quinn: Well, we're trying. People keep picking up the phone for some reason, we'll keep going. Deepti, thank you again, and we will we'll catch up with you again soon.
Dr Deepti Singh: Thanks a lot.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dish washing, or a fucking dog walking late at night, that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news, most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @Importantnotimp.
Quinn: [inaudible 01:08:41] just so weird.
Brian: Also on Facebook and Instagram @importantnotimportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. Check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. And if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple podcast to keep the lights on. Thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today, right in your little podcast player, and at our website, importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jam and music, to all of you for listening, and finally most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thank guys.