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

7.1 Introduction

7.1.1 Key issues

Climate change and sustainable development are linked through their interactions in industries, human settlements and society. Many of the forces shaping carbon emissions – such as economic growth, technological transformations, demographic shifts, lifestyles and governance structures – also underlie diverse pathways of development, explaining in part why industrialised countries account for the highest share of carbon emissions. The same drivers are also related to climate-change impacts, explaining in part why some regions and sectors, especially from the developing world, are more vulnerable to climate change than others because they lack financial, institutional and infrastructural capacities to cope with the associated stresses (O’Brien and Leichenko, 2003). Settlements and industry are often key focal points for linkages between mitigation and adaptation; for instance, efficient buildings can help in adapting to changing climate by providing protection against warming, while this adaptation may involve increased or decreased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with cooling based on electricity (Hough, 2004); and society is a key to responses based on democratic processes of government.

Industries, settlements and human society are accustomed to variability in environmental conditions, and in many ways they have become resilient to it when it is a part of their normal experience. Environmental changes that are more extreme or persistent than that experience, however, can lead to vulnerabilities, especially if the changes are not foreseen and/or if capacities for adaptation are limited; and the IPCC Third Assessment Report (IPCC, 2001) reported that climate change would increase the magnitude and frequency of weather extremes.

The central issues for industry, settlement and society are whether climate-change impacts are likely to require responses that go beyond normal adaptations to varying conditions, if so, for whom, and under what conditions responses are likely to be sufficient to avoid serious effects on people and the sustainability of their ways of life. Recent experiences such as Hurricane Katrina suggest that these issues are salient for developed as well as developing countries (Figure 7.1).

Figure 7.1

Figure 7.1. Flood depths in New Orleans, USA, on 3 September, 2005, five days after flooding from Hurricane Katrina, in feet (0.3 m) (Source: www.katrina.noaa.gov/maps/maps.html).

Scale matters in at least three ways in assessing the impacts of climate change on industry, settlement and society. First, climate change is one of a set of multiple stresses operating at diverse scales in space and through time. Second, both the exposure to climate change and the distribution of climate-sensitive settlements and industrial sectors vary greatly across geographic scale. The primary social and economic conditions that influence adaptive capacity also differ with scale, such as access to financial resources. One could say, for instance, that at a national scale industrialised countries such as the UK and Norway can cope with most kinds of gradual climate change, but focusing on more localised differences can show considerable variability in stresses and capacities to adapt (Environment Canada, 1997; Kates and Wilbanks, 2003; London Climate Change Partnership, 2004; O’Brien et al., 2004; Kirshen et al., 2006). Third, temporal scale is a critical determinant of the capacity of human systems to adapt to climate change; for instance, rapid changes are usually more difficult to absorb without painful costs than gradual change (Section 7.4; Chapter 17).