IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

Executive summary

Small islands, whether located in the tropics or higher latitudes, have characteristics which make them especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and extreme events (very high confidence).

This assessment confirms and strengthens previous observations reported in the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) which show that characteristics such as limited size, proneness to natural hazards, and external shocks enhance the vulnerability of islands to climate change. In most cases they have low adaptive capacity, and adaptation costs are high relative to gross domestic product (GDP). [16.1, 16.5]

Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities (very high confidence).

Some studies suggest that sea-level rise could lead to a reduction in island size, particularly in the Pacific, whilst others show that a few islands are morphologically resilient and are expected to persist. Island infrastructure tends to predominate in coastal locations. In the Caribbean and Pacific islands, more than 50% of the population live within 1.5 km of the shore. Almost without exception, international airports, roads and capital cities in the small islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean are sited along the coast, or on tiny coral islands. Sea-level rise will exacerbate inundation, erosion and other coastal hazards, threaten vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities, and thus compromise the socio-economic well-being of island communities and states. [16.4.2, 16.4.5, 16.4.7]

There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised (very high confidence).

Most small islands have a limited water supply, and water resources in these islands are especially vulnerable to future changes and distribution of rainfall. Many islands in the Caribbean are likely to experience increased water stress as a result of climate change. Under all Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) scenarios, reduced rainfall in summer is projected for this region, so that it is unlikely that demand would be met during low rainfall periods. Increased rainfall in winter is unlikely to compensate, due to lack of storage and high runoff during storms. In the Pacific, a 10% reduction in average rainfall (by 2050) would lead to a 20% reduction in the size of the freshwater lens on Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati. Reduced rainfall coupled with sea-level rise would compound this threat. Many small islands have begun to invest in the implementation of adaptation strategies, including desalination, to offset current and projected water shortages. [16.4.1]

Climate change is likely to heavily impact coral reefs, fisheries and other marine-based resources (high confidence).

Fisheries make an important contribution to the GDP of many island states. Changes in the occurrence and intensity of El NiƱo-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events are likely to have severe impacts on commercial and artisanal fisheries. Increasing sea surface temperature and rising sea level, increased turbidity, nutrient loading and chemical pollution, damage from tropical cyclones, and decreases in growth rates due to the effects of higher carbon dioxide concentrations on ocean chemistry, are very likely to affect the health of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems which sustain island fisheries. Such impacts will exacerbate non-climate-change stresses on coastal systems. [16.4.3]

On some islands, especially those at higher latitudes, warming has already led to the replacement of some local species (high confidence).

Mid- and high-latitude islands are virtually certain to be colonised by non-indigenous invasive species, previously limited by unfavourable temperature conditions. Increases in extreme events are virtually certain to affect the adaptation responses of forests on tropical islands, where regeneration is often slow, in the short term. In view of their small area, forests on many islands can easily be decimated by violent cyclones or storms. However, it is possible that forest cover will increase on some high-latitude islands. [16.4.4,]

It is very likely that subsistence and commercial agriculture on small islands will be adversely affected by climate change (high confidence).

Sea-level rise, inundation, seawater intrusion into freshwater lenses, soil salinisation, and decline in water supply are very likely to adversely impact coastal agriculture. Away from the coast, changes in extremes (e.g., flooding and drought) are likely to have a negative effect on agricultural production. Appropriate adaptation measures may help to reduce these impacts. In some high-latitude islands, new opportunities may arise for increased agricultural production. [16.4.3,]

New studies confirm previous findings that the effects of climate change on tourism are likely to be direct and indirect, and largely negative (high confidence).

Tourism is the major contributor to GDP and employment in many small islands. Sea-level rise and increased sea water temperature will cause accelerated beach erosion, degradation of coral reefs, and bleaching. In addition, a loss of cultural heritage from inundation and flooding reduces the amenity value for coastal users. Whereas a warmer climate could reduce the number of people visiting small islands in low latitudes, it could have the reverse effect in mid- and high-latitude islands. However, water shortages and increased incidence of vector-borne diseases may also deter tourists. [16.4.6]

There is growing concern that global climate change is likely to impact human health, mostly in adverse ways (medium confidence).

Many small islands are located in tropical or sub-tropical zones whose weather and climate are already conducive to the transmission of diseases such as malaria, dengue, filariasis, schistosomiasis, and food- and water-borne diseases. Other climate-sensitive diseases of concern to small islands include diarrhoeal diseases, heat stress, skin diseases, acute respiratory infections and asthma. The observed increasing incidence of many of these diseases in small islands is attributable to a combination of factors, including poor public health practices, inadequate infrastructure, poor waste management practices, increasing global travel, and changing climatic conditions. [16.4.5]