Executive summary

Climate change will lead to changes in geophysical, biological and socio-economic systems. An impact describes a specific change in a system caused by its exposure to climate change. Impacts may be judged to be harmful or beneficial. Vulnerability to climate change is the degree to which these systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, 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, impacts and adaptation. [19.1.1]

Many of these impacts, vulnerabilities and risks merit particular attention by policy-makers due to characteristics that might make them 'key'. 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 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Article 2 (see Box 19.1). Ultimately, the definition of DAI cannot be based on scientific arguments alone, but involves other judgements informed by the state of scientific knowledge. No single metric can adequately describe the diversity of key vulnerabilities, nor determine their ranking. [19.1.1]

This chapter identifies seven criteria from the literature that may be used to identify key vulnerabilities, and then describes some potential key vulnerabilities identified using these criteria. The criteria are [19.2]:

• magnitude of impacts,

• persistence and reversibility of impacts,

• likelihood (estimates of uncertainty) of impacts and vulnerabilities and confidence in those estimates

• potential for adaptation

• distributional aspects of impacts and vulnerabilities

• importance of the system(s) at risk.

Key vulnerabilities are associated with many climate-sensitive systems, including food supply, infrastructure, health, water resources, coastal systems, ecosystems, global biogeochemical cycles, ice sheets and modes of oceanic and atmospheric circulation. [19.3]

General conclusions include the following [19.3].

• Some observed key impacts have been at least partly attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Among these are increases in human mortality, loss of glaciers, and increases in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme events.

• Global mean temperature changes of up to 2°C above 19902000 levels (see Box 19.2) would exacerbate current key impacts, such as those listed above (high confidence), and trigger others, such as reduced food security in many low-latitude nations (medium confidence). At the same time, some systems, such as global agricultural productivity, could benefit (low/medium confidence).

• Global mean temperature changes of 2 to 4°C above 19902000 levels would result in an increasing number of key impacts at all scales (high confidence), such as widespread loss of biodiversity, decreasing global agricultural productivity and commitment to widespread deglaciation of Greenland (high confidence) and West Antarctic (medium confidence) ice sheets.

• Global mean temperature changes greater than 4°C above 1990-2000 levels would lead to major increases in vulnerability (very high confidence), exceeding the adaptive capacity of many systems (very high confidence).

• Regions that are already at high risk from observed climate variability and climate change are more likely to be adversely affected in the near future by projected changes in climate and increases in the magnitude and/or frequency of already damaging extreme events.

The 'reasons for concern' identified in the Third Assessment Report (TAR) remain a viable framework in which to consider key vulnerabilities. Recent research has updated some of the findings from the TAR [19.3.7].

• There is new and stronger evidence of observed impacts of climate change on unique and vulnerable systems (such as polar and high-mountain communities and ecosystems), with increasing levels of adverse impacts as temperatures increase (very high confidence).

• There is new evidence that observed climate change is likely to have already increased the risk of certain extreme events such as heatwaves, and it is more likely than not that warming has contributed to the intensification of some tropical cyclones, with increasing levels of adverse impacts as temperatures increase (very high confidence).

• The distribution of impacts and vulnerabilities is still considered to be uneven, and low-latitude, less-developed areas are generally at greatest risk due to both higher sensitivity and lower adaptive capacity; but there is new evidence that vulnerability to climate change is also highly variable within countries, including developed countries.

• There is some evidence that initial net market benefits from climate change will peak at a lower magnitude and sooner than was assumed for the TAR, and it is likely that there will be higher damages for larger magnitudes of global mean temperature increases than was estimated in the TAR.

• The literature offers more specific guidance on possible thresholds for initiating partial or near-complete deglaciation of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

Adaptation can significantly reduce many potentially dangerous impacts of climate change and reduce the risk of many key vulnerabilities. However, the technical, financial and institutional capacity, and the actual planning and implementation of effective adaptation, is currently quite limited in many regions. In addition, the risk-reducing potential of planned adaptation is either very limited or very costly for some key vulnerabilities, such as loss of biodiversity, melting of mountain glaciers and disintegration of major ice sheets. [19.4.1]

A general conclusion on the basis of present understanding is that for market and social systems there is considerable adaptation potential, but the economic costs are potentially large, largely unknown and unequally distributed, as is the adaptation potential itself. For biological and geophysical systems, the adaptation potential is much less than in social and market systems. There is wide agreement that it will be much more difficult for both human and natural systems to adapt to larger magnitudes of global mean temperature change than to smaller ones, and that adaptation will be more difficult and/or costly for faster warming rates than for slower rates. [19.4.1]

Several conclusions appear robust across a diverse set of studies in the integrated assessment and mitigation literature [19.4.2, 19.4.3].

• Given the uncertainties in factors such as climate sensitivity, regional climate change, vulnerability to climate change, adaptive capacity and the likelihood of bringing such capacity to bear, a risk-management framework emerges as a useful framework to address key vulnerabilities. However, the assignment of probabilities to specific key impacts is often very difficult, due to the large uncertainties involved.

• Actions to mitigate climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the risk associated with most key vulnerabilities. Postponement of such actions, in contrast, generally increases risks.

• Given current atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (IPCC, 2007a) and the range of projections for future climate change, some key impacts (e.g., loss of species, partial deglaciation of major ice sheets) cannot be avoided with high confidence. The probability of initiating some large-scale events is very likely to continue to increase as long as greenhouse gas concentrations and temperature continue to increase.

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