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Makuleke, a village of small mud-walled houses with tin roofs in South Africa’s Limpopo province, is a dry place in a dry land. Rainfall there, near the country’s border with Zimbabwe, is low by most standards; about the same as rainfall in Montana.

Philemon Makamu, a farmer in Makuleke, gestures toward a garden planted in corn, pumpkin, watermelon and peanuts. His friend Reckson Josini squats to the ground to grasp a corn stalk gingerly in his hands. "You can see how it suffers,” say Makamu.

The plant is green, but its stalk is stunted. Its leaves are curled, as if to escape from the sun. Josini explains that this year has been worse than the normally-marginal conditions. Rainfall has been about half the average. "We are running out of water," says Josini. "If the rain comes next week, there is hope that next week it will come then it will become OK.”

This growing season started out okay; then the rains abruptly stopped. In contrast to the rest of the world African farmers like those of Makuleke are extraordinarily dependent on rainfall. About forty percent of arable land in Asia is irrigated. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is only four percent. Geographer Peter Johnston of the University of Cape Town says all of Africa will become warmer over the next century, and less rain will fall on large swaths of the southern countries of South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe during what is already each year’s dry season.

For Philemon Makamu in Makuleke, tilling his garden is already risky business. "We gamble on farming," he says. "If you are lucky then the rain will come."

Makamu and Josini are lucky in at least one sense. They are not completely dependent on their thirsty subsistence garden. They belong to a farmer’s association with an irrigation system that waters about 600 acres on which they grow various cash crops, including tomatoes, corn and potatoes. Four powerful electric pumps there propel water from a nearby reservoir to nineteen sprinklers, each of which sprays a plot the size of twenty football fields. The irrigation system is currently used by only forty-one families of the several thousand residents of Makuleke. But Josini says production from the irrigated land supports the entire community in one way or another. Josini, is chairman of Makuleke’s farmer’s association. Philemon Makamu—also an official in the association—worries that farming without irrigation may no longer be possible. "We are not used to this climate change,” he says. "People were plowing and getting food, but now things change.”

Josini says that even with help from the irrigation scheme, troubles loom. He drives to the reservoir to explain. Striding to the water’s edge, he motions to a pipe sticking up out of the water. The pipe should be covered, he says. But the water level is down about 6 feet. "I'm scared,” he says. "If it doesn't get the rain this year we are nowhere next time. We depend on the irrigation scheme. Once this place not here, all these people die. We are going to die.”

Cultural anthropologist Douglas Merrey, an international consultant on water and irrigation policies based in Pretoria, says much farmland in South Africa is marginal already and the situation is getting worse. Irrigation can help, but there isn’t enough surface and ground water to meet the demands of every water-short farmer. "Many of the rural poor who now do depend on some farming and livestock and so on, just to survive, are probably not going to be farmers in the future,” he say. "There just isn’t going to be the possibility for so many people to stay in farming.” The dilemma for South African farmers, says Merrey, is that they have limited options for making a living. "We can’t say, ‘Well, tomorrow pack up and go to Johannesburg because there’s lot of jobs,’ there aren’t. There aren’t enough jobs.” Merrey says in the short term the government must find ways to help farmers where water supplies are limited, like providing equipment for collecting and storing rainwater, and helping farmers get more efficient irrigation systems. He says in the long term farmers and the government must prepare the next generation for different occupations.

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At the University of Cape Town, plant geneticist Jennifer Thomson says research in her lab on maize—as corn is known in many countries—will help South Africa to withstand drier conditions. Maize is South Africa’s most important food and cash crop.  South Africans eat it on the cob, and in mealie pap a stiff porridge served with roasted meat. Maize is grown over a large portion of South Africa’s cultivated land.  But the crop has very low yields by world standards, and production is declining along with rainfall.

The University of Cape Town, located high on a hillside, is a verdant refuge from the Cape Town’s packed neighborhoods and sprawling slums. Thomson works in a complex of laboratories and offices on two floors of a low building in the middle of the campus. The researcher goes into a small room and yanks open the heavy door of what looks like a restaurant refrigerator. An intense golden light floods the room. Revealed inside, illuminated by powerful lamps, are half a dozen full-grown corn stalks growing in plastic pots. "This is my baby,” she says, referring to the closet-size climate-controlled artificial greenhouse. This million-rand (about $130,000) piece of equipment is an expensive item for a university researcher in South Africa. But Thomson is lavishly funded by grants from agri-businesses, including Panner, South Africa’s largest seed company. Thomson’s greenhouse provides her plants with the same conditions found on farms in some of South Africa’s most punishing regions. The scientist is genetically engineering maize to withstand drought. She’s testing it inside this Cape Town laboratory because field tests are prohibited until the genetically modified plant has received government approval.

The origin of Thomson’s drought-resistent maize is a scientific shaggy-dog tale. It began when she asked a collaborating plant physiologist for ideas about a plant that might have genes Thomson could use to build water tolerance. "And she didn’t hesitate” says Thomson: Xerophyta viscosa.” Xerophyta viscosa is the scientific name for the plant more commonly called the resurrection plant. It can become almost completely dehydrated and look dead, then with a single drink of water it bounces back to life. As Thomson recalls, her colleague said "Jen, this is the plant for us.”

To gather samples, Thomson had to organize an expedition to South Africa’s Drakensburg mountains. Known in Zulu as uKhahlamba, which means the barrier of spears, the Drakensburg range is a chain of ten- and eleven-thousand-foot pinnacles of basalt. Jennifer Thomson is no mountain climber, but she organized an expedition and gathered samples of a plant she knew initially only from photos and drawings as a bushy cluster of spiky fronds.

Mountain climbing was easy compared to what came next: finding which genes give the resurrection plant the ability to wait patiently for a drink. After years of work identifying and comparing the genes of hydrated and dehydrated plants, the scientist found one gene that particularly interested her. Thomson says the gene acts like a switch that shuts down the plant when dry and turns it back on when wet. She doesn’t know mechanism the switch controls. But she figured that maybe if she put the switch into the DNA of maize that plant might have the same mechanism in its genes. It worked. She says her climate-controlled cabinet now contains maize that can sit patiently when there is no water, waiting for rain. Thomson’s experimental maize is now in its final phase of testing. But before it can be cultivated widely it faces both government review and tough questions from opponents of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Among Thomson’s critics is Mariam Mayet, founder of the African Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s leading opponents of GMOs. South Africa is one of only three African nations where GMOs are allowed to be cultivated. Four and a half million acres of genetically modified maize, soybeans and cotton are already growing there, the result of partnerships between the government, NGOs like the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and multinational corporations like Monsanto. Mayet says seed companies are taking advantage of South Africa’s regulatory environment to test what she considers a risky technology, and to gain acceptance for it throughout the continent. "Instead of really addressing the problem at its fundamental core and introducing long-term sustainable solutions that will maximize livelihood opportunities for farmers, they are exploiting a crisis to promote very narrow corporate profit-driven interests,” says Mayet.

Katherine Vincent, an environmental scientist at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, takes a more sympathetic, though still cautious, view of GMOs. Such crops, engineered to withstand drought, might be needed to avoid starvation if rainfall declines as predicted. "It is very hard to argue against GMOs,” she says. On the other hand, says Vincent, the actual causes of hunger are complex, and she cautions that simply introducing a new technology to increase production is not necessarily going to mean that people will have enough food. She says that often there are people within a country who go hungry even if the country is exporting important food crops abroad. Access to food depends on much more than simply a country’s total production; it is also depends on political, economic and social factors such as the distribution of wealth, tax policies and the like. "So, I think I would caution on the use of GMOs,” she says, "unless production really is at a critical level.”

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Scientists have shown beyond doubt that humans are making Earth warmer. The consequences are already being felt around the world As President Barack Obama proclaimed on September 22, 2009 at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change: "No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change.” He continued by saying:

Rising sea levels threaten every coastline. More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent. More frequent drought and crop failures breed hunger and conflict in places where hunger and conflict already thrive. On shrinking islands, families are already being forced to flee their homes as climate refugees.

Recognizing and acknowledging that climate change will exact a sobering toll is an important step. Dealing with that toll will be difficult. Many people who oppose action to respond to the problem say curbing greenhouse gasses will be too expensive; and that such action will shatter our economy and cut the standard of living.

Such claims are hard to assess, as there is no good measure of the misery climate change will inflict. If there were, governments and their citizens could weight the investment—sometimes estimated in trillions of dollars—to slow global warming now against the cost of responding to its consequences later. The International Institute for Environment and Development estimates that in a decade the world could spend up to 500 billion dollars a year just to ameliorate the effects of climate change.

But total cost is not the only factor to consider. The distribution of the costs and impacts is also important. Atiq Rahman, chairman of the South Asia Climate Action Network, calls climate change a classic issue of  "global unfairness.”  He says, "you’re exporting your dump into the atmosphere, killing some of the people somewhere else.” He says Americans—who produce 65 times more carbon dioxide per person than his fellow Bangladeshis—have an obligation to the rest of the world not only to reduce their own carbon footprint but to help others do so as well. He also says that the people of the third world, many of whom are desperately poor, shouldn’t have to have to hold future development hostage to protecting the planet.

Stephen Schneider, founder and editor of the journal Climatic Change and a lead author of the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says it is already clear that impacts of climate change like, sea-level rise, heat waves and drought, will hit the poorest parts of the world hardest. He fears that, if not properly crafted, efforts to curb global warming might be just as detrimental to the world’s poorest people. The primary tool to slow global warming in developed nations will most likely be to increase the price of conventional fuels. Schneider says this strategy could have unintended consequences. "For me, it’s going to affect what grape I drink in my red wine, for them it might affect the quality of protein for their family.”

Schneider says curbing global warming within the next two decades is humanity’s greatest challenge. Some of the damage is already done, he says, but the impacts could be much worse if global warming is not slowed. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, for instance, could be doomed to collapse—causing catastrophic increases in sea level—if action is not taken soon. Such nightmare scenarios, if they become reality, might take decades or centuries to unfold, but whether or not they do could be in the hands of today’s generation. Schneider urges Americans to accept this responsibility now. "There are some people ...who think, ‘Well, if the effects aren’t going to happen for centuries, what, me worry,’” says Schneider. "Well, I think those people better look in the mirror and make sure there’s an ethical person looking back at them when they start thinking like that.”

sea level rise in bangladeshComparing vegetation conditions in March 2007 to conditions during the average March between 1999 and 2006.