31 October 2015 14:08:28 IST

Get ready for the Revenge of Nature

In typical Halloween style, we outline how bad the global warming situation will get if it’s not acted upon soon

Folks, there’s bad news.

What do you do when enemy planes swarm the sky in large numbers and you are short of anti-aircraft guns? You run for cover, right? Well, this is no fantastical scenario, but a figurative reality of where we are — rather, where the developed countries have brought us.

In less than a month, major climate negotiations will take place in Paris, and the decisions taken there will re-write our fate, for better or worse. And from where we stand today, it seems to lean towards ‘worse’.

In the run-up to the conference, most countries have announced to the world what they will commit to, to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ or INDCs, dealt with in detail in my previous columns. Now, climate scientists are almost unanimous in their view that the planet’s warming has to stop at two degrees above the pre-industrial era (1850-80s) levels — if not, we are in big trouble.

Turns out that the INDCs the countries put on the table do not add up to two degrees. Even if — and that’s a very big if — all countries keep their word and do what they promised, their pledges add up to 2.7 degree warming, which, believe you me, is pretty bad. Even two degrees is not sanguine and this is close to three!

Expect untimely, unprecedented rains, surprise droughts in long spells, sea level rises, islands going under, habitats disappearing, disease-carrying vector proliferation, and so on and so forth. We did it to the environment, now the environment is going to do it to us. How’s this for Halloween spookiness, eh?

Climate M&A

You are all familiar with the term ‘M&A’, meaning ‘mergers and acquisitions’. Now, in climate parlance, there is another M&A — mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is when you try to stop or slow down the attack on the atmosphere, while adaptation is trying to cope with what will inevitably come upon us — running for cover.

Most of the discourse up till now has been ‘mitigation-centred’, like building more wind and solar power plants, growing trees that suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, shutting down coal-burning power plants and other such ‘green’ measures. That was firing on the enemy planes with our anti-aircraft guns.

But the INDCs clearly show that our ammo has not been good enough. So, we have to run for cover. Which means adaptation.

How to live with the deleterious effects of climate change? What can we now do to protect ourselves with reasonable efficacy? This is an area the young people of today will urgently need to concern themselves with, for they will bear the brunt of the Revenge of Nature.

Fortunately, science has answers — at least, some. Let me describe one of them.

All hail halophytes!

Have you heard of ‘halophytes’? If you haven’t, don’t fret, for it is not a common term. But it will be soon.

Halophytes are salt-loving plants that can grow in shallow sea-water or on shores. Yes, mangroves are halophytes. Globally, biotechnological research is going into halophytes, trying to identify new species that can be useful to us in developing hybrid varieties of such plants.

One halophyte is called Salicornia. A company in the US (called OceanDesertFood) sells ‘salicornia crackers’ (and ‘seaweed chips’).

Well, it is difficult to see halophytes producing a major part of the food that mankind needs but they are a sure way of growing foods, fodder and biofuels in areas where nothing is grown now.

The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, founded by India’s pre-eminent agriculture scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, has set up a ‘genetic garden of halophytes’ at Vedaranyam, on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu. The garden is home to 29 halophyte species collected along the coast of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Research is on to identify and separate genes that can impart salt-tolerance qualities to other food crops. MSSRF has begun to see success. There are right now “varieties of rice with genes for salinity tolerance derived from Avicennia marina and for drought based on genes from Prosopis juliflora,” says MSSRF.

How do the halophytes taste? I don’t know, but I’d expect salty. Palatable? Well, we all like salt, don’t we? Maybe we will get used to halophytes, and begin to like them better. How’s this for an ad tag-line: ‘Hot, spicy, halophyte specialties served here’.

Well, whether you like halophytes or not, when the sea level rises, as it inevitably will, given the emasculated INDCs, these salt-loving plants will start to look real friendly.