Global warming could cause an increase in witch hunts. And we don’t mean the Webster Dictionary kind of way, but literally!

In Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about a consequence of climate change that few have considered. In parts of the world where people’s livelihood and food depends on rain-fed agriculture, and who believe the weather can be influenced through supernatural human powers, elderly women deemed witches are in danger of losing their lives.

The logic goes that if climate change increases draughts and floods, causing economic shock to subsistence communities, there will be more anger directed at witches who are believed to be creating the havoc. Kristof references a study published in 2005 by UC Berkeley economist Ted Miguel, who found that in rural Tanzania:
“Extreme rainfall — resulting in drought or floods — is exogenous and is associated with poor harvests and near-famine conditions in the region, and a large increase in the murder of “witches”: there are twice as many witch murders in years of extreme rainfall as in other years. The victims are nearly all elderly women, typically killed by relatives. These econometric results, across 11 years in 67 villages, provide novel evidence on the role of income shocks in causing violent crime, and religious violence in particular.”

Miguel’s study pointedly says that witch hunts are not limited to Tanzania, but found around the world, and have a long history of coinciding with extreme weather events that disrupt food supplies. It’s a grizzly scenario that may seem distant and perhaps otherworldly, but with a second look it struck us as an extreme that in a much-diluted form feels awfully close to home.

Headlines herehere, and here describe the world’s current crisis of soaring food prices, and it was just last November that Georgia’s governor called for a state-wide rain prayer in response to a prolonged drought. While we appreciate the sentiment and circumstances, we think each of these examples is a strong argument for employing just a bit more superhuman political and technical power to tackling global warming.

Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Climate killings
Climate change could result in 21st century witch hunts.