The potential for responding

The recent IPCC Working Group II report (IPCC, 2007b) raises a number of important points with respect to climate impacts and their consequences for human well-being. In terms of human vulnerability, the literature is clear that analyses of impacts at global and continental scales can mask significant regional vulnerabilities (i.e., there is great potential for significant variation in impacts and consequences at a regional scale). Working Group II identifies the major megadeltas, sub-Saharan Africa, the tropics and subtropics, small islands and the high northern latitudes as being at particular risk of important climate impacts. In part, this is because these geographic regions have ecosystems that exhibit particular vulnerability to expected climate change, and climate change impacts have already been detected in many areas, especially in the high latitudes (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, 2005). In addition, many societies in these regions have limited adaptive capacity compared, for example, to more affluent regions in North America and Western Europe.

The Working Group II Fourth Assessment Report concluded that there is likely to be great variation in adaptive capacity among different societies. While adaptive capacity is thought to be generally related to the wealth of societies, this relationship is not straightforward. Even very wealthy societies can have significant vulnerabilities to the consequences of climate change, particularly among vulnerable segments of their populations. While there are beginning to be significant advances in knowledge relating to potential adaptive strategies, there are, so far, very few examples of proactive adaptation actions that would be applicable to natural ecosystems. The implications are clear: if climate change and its consequences turn out to be in the upper range of estimated probabilities, even the adaptive capacity of wealthy nations could be overwhelmed by the end of the century.

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