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

19.1 Introduction

19.1.1 Purpose, scope and structure of the chapter

Many social, biological and geophysical systems are at risk from climate change. Since the Third Assessment Report (TAR; IPCC, 2001a), policy-makers and the scientific community have increasingly turned their attention to climate change impacts, vulnerabilities and associated risks that may be considered ‘key’ because of their magnitude, persistence and other characteristics. An impact describes a specific change in a system caused by its exposure to climate change. Impacts may be judged to be either harmful or beneficial. Vulnerability to climate change is the degree to which these systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, the adverse impacts. The concept of risk, which combines the magnitude of the impact with the probability of its occurrence, captures uncertainty in the underlying processes of climate change, exposure, sensitivity and adaptation.

The identification of potential key vulnerabilities is intended to provide guidance to decision-makers for identifying levels and rates of climate change that may be associated with ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ (DAI) with the climate system, in the terminology of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Article 2 (see Box 19.1). Ultimately, the determination of DAI cannot be based on scientific arguments alone, but involves other judgements informed by the state of scientific knowledge.

Box 19.1. UNFCCC Article 2

The text of the UNFCCC Article 2 reads:

“The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

The purpose of this chapter is two-fold. First, it synthesises information from Working Group I (WGI) and Chapters 3-16 of Working Group II (WGII) of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) within the uncertainty framework established by IPCC (Moss and Schneider, 2000; IPCC, 2007b) and the risk management approach discussed in Chapter 2, and identifies key vulnerabilities based on seven criteria (see Section 19.2). A focus on key vulnerabilities is meant to help policy-makers and stakeholders assess the level of risk and design pertinent response strategies. Given this focus, the analytic emphasis of this chapter is on people and systems that may be adversely affected by climate change, particularly where impacts could have serious and/or irreversible consequences. Positive impacts on a system are addressed when reported in the literature and where relevant to the assessment of key vulnerabilities. A comprehensive assessment of positive and negative climate impacts in all sectors and regions is beyond the scope of this chapter, and readers are encouraged to turn to the sectoral and regional chapters of this volume (Chapters 3-16) for this information.

Furthermore, it is acknowledged that the impacts of future climate change will occur in the context of an evolving socio-economic baseline. This chapter attempts to reflect the limited literature examining the possible positive and negative relationships between baseline scenarios and future impacts. However, the purpose of this chapter is not to compare the effects of climate change with the effects of socio-economic development, but rather to assess the additional effects of climate change on top of whatever baseline development scenario is assumed. Whether a climate change impact would be greater or smaller than welfare gains or losses associated with particular development scenarios is beyond the scope of this chapter but is dealt with in Chapter 20 and by Working Group III (WGIII).

Second, this chapter provides an assessment of literature focusing on the contributions that various mitigation and adaptation response strategies, such as stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, could make in avoiding or reducing the probability of occurrence of key impacts. Weighing the benefits of avoiding such climate-induced risks versus the costs of mitigation or adaptation, as well as the distribution of such costs and benefits (i.e., equity implications of such trade-offs) is also beyond the scope of this chapter, as is attempting a normative trade-off analysis among and between various groups and between human and natural systems. (The term ‘normative’ is used in this chapter to refer to a process or statement that inherently involves value judgements or beliefs.) Many more examples of such literature can be obtained in Chapters 18 and 20 of this volume and in the Working Group III (WGIII) AR4.

The remainder of Section 19.1 presents the conceptual framework, and Section 19.2 presents the specific criteria used in this chapter for the assessment of key vulnerabilities. Section 19.3 presents selected key vulnerabilities based on these criteria. Key vulnerabilities are linked to specific levels of global mean temperature increase (above 1990-2000 levels; see Box 19.2) using available estimates from the literature wherever possible. Section 19.3 provides an indicative, rather than an exhaustive, list of key vulnerabilities, representing the authors’ collective judgements based on the criteria presented in Section 19.2, selected from a vast array of possible candidates suggested in the literature. Section 19.4 draws on the literature addressing the linkages between key vulnerabilities and strategies to avoid them by adaptation (Section 19.4.1) and mitigation (Section 19.4.2). Section 19.4.4 concludes this chapter by suggesting research priorities for the natural and social sciences that may provide relevant knowledge for assessing key vulnerabilities of climate change. The assessment of key vulnerabilities and review of the particular assemblage of literature needed to do so is unique to the mission of Chapter 19. Accordingly, in Sections 19.3 and 19.4, we have made judgments with regard to likelihood and confidence whereas, in some cases, other chapters in this volume and in the WGI AR4 have not.

Box 19.2. Reference for temperature levels

Levels of global mean temperature change are variously presented in the literature with respect to: pre-industrial temperatures in a specified year e.g., 1750 or 1850; the average temperature of the 1961-1990 period; or the average temperature within the 1990-2000 period. The best estimate for the increase above pre-industrial levels in the 1990-2000 period is 0.6°C, reflecting the best estimate for warming over the 20th century (Folland et al., 2001; Trenberth et al., 2007). Therefore, to illustrate this by way of a specific example, a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels corresponds to a 1.4°C increase above 1990-2000 levels. Climate impact studies often assess changes in response to regional temperature change, which can differ significantly from changes in global mean temperature. In most land areas, regional warming is larger than global warming (see Christensen et al., 2007). Unless otherwise specified, this chapter refers to global mean temperature change above 1990-2000 levels, which reflects the most common metric used in the literature on key vulnerabilities. However, given the many conventions in the literature for baseline periods, the reader is advised to check carefully and to adjust baseline levels for consistency every time a number is given for impacts at some specified level of global mean temperature change.

Another important area of concern, also marked by large uncertainties, is the assessment of impacts resulting from multiple factors. In some cases, key vulnerabilities emerging from such interactions are assessed, such as the fragmentation of habitats that constrains some species, which – when combined with climate change – forces species movements across disturbed habitats. This is a multi-stressor example that is likely to multiply the impacts relative to either stressor acting alone. Other examples from the literature are also given in the text; though any attempt to be comprehensive or quantitative in such multi-stress situations is beyond the scope of the chapter.