10/10/2014 04:33 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

The Blind Spot for Climate Research in Agriculture: Not All Climate Change is Bad

I love the mirrors on my wife's new car. Like many new cars, it has lights on the side mirrors that illuminate if there is an object in the driver's blind spot. Having changed lanes in my pickup truck outfitted with conventional mirrors right into the path of another vehicle -- their horn blaring and my pulse racing as I swerve to avoid collision -- I am greatly aware that what I don't see might hurt me.

When it comes to researching the impact of climate change on agriculture, I sometimes feel like I'm one of the few with the new mirrors that help me see in the blind spot.

As part of my research, I use crop modeling software together with global climate models to see what the direct impact of climate change will be on crops. Typically, I divide the world into relatively small squares -- anywhere from 10 to 50 kilometers on edge -- and look at the impact inside each square. With squares numbering in the hundreds of thousands, we get a wide variety of outcomes. One advantage of doing analysis at such fine levels is that it is possible to see areas that will be adversely impacted, alerting researchers, policymakers, and donors that attention needs to be focused on that particular area.

On average (confirmed by an overwhelming majority of the models), by 2050 climate change will have adverse impact on crop yields across the globe, especially in tropical countries. It gets much worse past 2050, because the more that greenhouse gases accumulate, the hotter it will get. The current projections for productivity losses by 2100 are scary.

What is not written about very often -- and this is what I consider to be the blind spot -- is the fact that we can also see areas that will have higher agricultural productivity as a result of climate change -- at least through 2050, which is where my research has focused. That is, many if not most countries have areas within them that are projected to have higher productivity due to climate change. It is reasonably well known that agricultural productivity in some parts of temperate countries would increase because warming could remove some of the limitations on production, particularly in lengthening growing seasons and limiting damaging frosts. But the same general observation is true for many tropical countries, as well.

Climate change can improve productivity in parts of these countries in three ways. First, elevated areas even in tropical countries can be too cold for agriculture. With a few degrees of warming, cultivation becomes feasible in places it wasn't before. Second, warmer temperatures make agriculture feasible in seasons that previously were too cold. This is important because, as populations continue to grow, we will need to grow more food on less land. Keeping the land producing food for more months of the year (i.e., double- and triple-cropping) can make a very important contribution toward this challenge. Third, with climate change, many places are projected to receive higher rainfall. If these place are ones currently constrained by low or unreliable rainfall, then the higher rainfall will result in higher productivity, as long as higher temperatures don't create too much heat stress and increase evapotranspiration.

We should focus on these "climate opportunities" in addition to the "climate hotspots" -- the areas that the models show will be adversely impacted. The world could have more food, countries a higher GDP, and the farmers more income (relative to the case where nothing is done) -- if these "climate opportunities" are examined now.

One of the principles of economics is that people -- farmers and those in business -- take advantage of opportunities to make profits. Surely in the future people will discover these newly productive lands. Yet if these lands happen to be in sensitive areas, which is often the case -- slopes of mountains that would likely erode under cultivation, or ecologically sensitive zones because of biodiversity or endemic species (many of which might be lucrative tourist attractions) -- irreversible environmental and economic harm can be done if settlement takes place before the governments have had sufficient time to plan.
Furthermore, because land rights are often not well-defined in sparsely-populated sections of developing countries, even violent conflicts can arise over land use and ownership.

If some thought is given now at the national level as to how these climate opportunities might best be handled in the future, sensitive areas can be protected, conflicts can be avoided, and plans to safely and productively benefit from genuine climate opportunities -- fertile lands in stable environments -- can be discussed and prepared. Perhaps there will still be failures, but fewer than if nothing is done.
Even without new-fangled mirrors, researchers, policymakers, and donors can keep checking their blind spots, finding "climate opportunities," and evaluating which are genuine and which create additional challenges that need to be addressed.

Timothy S. Thomas is a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute specializing in climate change and agriculture issues. He has co-authored three recently published books on the adaptation of agriculture to climate change in African countries.