Even in the best case climate scenarios, the planet is going to face years of rising temperatures and some pretty unpleasant (and often tragic) results across much of the world. Given that many of the worst-hit locations will be in the poorer nations, it's important that we spend some time thinking about ways not just to mitigate the process of climate disruption -- that is, to reverse it -- but also to mitigate its effects. This isn't "adaptation," it's harm reduction; think of it as suppressing the worst symptoms while fighting to cure the disease.
Changes to temperature and rainfall patterns will affect many elements of how we live, but one of the most important will be agriculture. Staple foods that have been grown in various regions for hundreds or thousands of years will be harder and harder to cultivate; it's highly likely that global warming will lead to repeated crop failures and famine. Fortunately, some organizations have begun to consider this scenario, and to work on responses. This month, the International Rice Research Institute announced a new plan to do just that:
"Clearly, climate change is going to have a major impact on our ability to grow rice," Robert S. Zeigler, IRRI director general, said. "We can't afford to sit back and be complacent about this because rice production feeds almost half the world's population while providing vital employment to millions as well, with most of them being very poor and vulnerable."
For these reasons, Dr. Zeigler announced at the workshop that IRRI in an unprecedented move was ready to put up US$2 million of its own research funds as part of an effort to raise $2025 million for a major five-year project to mitigate the effects of climate change on rice production. "We need to start developing rice varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures and other aspects of climate change right now," he said.
Among the characteristics the IRRI program intends to pursue are: ability to tolerate higher tempratures, particularly an ability to provide high yields after extreme temperature spikes; ability to take advantage of higher carbon dioxide concentrations; ability to return to productivity after extreme weather events; and ability to provide well above-normal yields.
The recent sequencing of the rice genome will make this effort easier. This doesn't mean that the first step will be transgenic bioengineering of rice; more likely, a wide array of developmental tools will be used, from "smart breeding" to cross-breeding of rice species to limited genetic manipulation.
Finding the right balance between climate change effects mitigation and process mitigation isn't easy. Put too much effort into figuring out how to live with the effects, and the temptation grows to simply accept the changes that have happened, especially if the effects aren't as bad in (say) the United States as they are in (say) the Philippines. Put too little effort in, however, and it will be difficult to focus on developing the necessary innovations and implementations for stopping and, eventually, reversing the climate disaster. Effects mitigation programs that focus on helping the poorest and most vulnerable populations handle global warming seems a reasonable compromise; the IRRI project will be a useful model to watch.