School of Public Health study finds correlation between California drought and crime


October 31, 2017

Image of dry grassland with mountains in the background

A four-year study conducted by UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers found a significant association between the California drought and property crime rates.

Dana E. Goin, an epidemiology PhD student, Kara E. Rudolph, a post-doctoral scholar, and Jennifer Ahern, an associate professor of epidemiology, found two primary links between the drought and crime rate—first, major shifts in climate have economic and social consequences which may change crime patterns and, second, changes in daily weather patterns can change human behavior and daily activities, increasing risk of victimization.

The findings were published in the Oct. 4 edition of the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

“We saw how serious the drought was, but we weren’t aware of work being done by social science researchers to investigate its potentially broad impacts on society,” Goin said.

She added, “There is increasing evidence suggesting changes in climate are associated with criminal and economic outcomes, and we thought someone should look into this in California.”

California experienced a severe drought from 2011-2015, which may have increased economic stress among vulnerable populations and altered daily activities of the population, leading to increases in crime, according to the study. The researchers found a rise in property crimes associated with the drought, but found no effect on violent crimes.

The researchers note that water rates rose for those living in urban and semi-urban areas, while hitting lower-income families the hardest. The water price increased more than 2 percent of household income for families earning less than $25,000 annually.

“Increases in unemployment, greater inequality, declining wages, and other forms of political or economic disempowerment can erode community cohesion and foment divisiveness, resulting in higher crime,” the study said.

The study continued: “Additionally, many of these factors shift perceptions about fairness, equality, and support, resulting in altered patterns of individual behavior and motivations regarding crime. Drought-related economic stress may have exacerbated these issues faced by many Californians, especially those living in areas highly dependent on groundwater and those burdened by drought surcharges and regulations.”