Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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Figure TS-11: Locations at which systematic long-term studies meet stringent criteria documenting recent temperature-related regional climate change impacts on physical and biological systems. Hydrology, glacial retreat, and sea-ice data represent decadal to century trends. Terrestrial and marine ecosystem data represent trends of at least 2 decades. Remote-sensing studies cover large areas. Data are for single or multiple impacts that are consistent with known mechanisms of physical/biological system responses to observed regional temperature-related changes. For reported impacts spanning large areas, a representative location on the map was selected.
7. Global Issues and Synthesis 7.1. Detection of Climate Change Impacts

Observational evidence indicates that climate changes in the 20th century already have affected a diverse set of physical and biological systems. Examples of observed changes with linkages to climate include shrinkage of glaciers; thawing of permafrost; shifts in ice freeze and break-up dates on rivers and lakes; increases in rainfall and rainfall intensity in most mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere; lengthening of growing seasons; and earlier flowering dates of trees, emergence of insects, and egg-laying in birds. Statistically significant associations between changes in regional climate and observed changes in physical and biological systems have been documented in freshwater, terrestrial, and marine environments on all continents. [19.2]

The presence of multiple causal factors (e.g., land-use change, pollution) makes attribution of many observed impacts to regional climate change a complex challenge. Nevertheless, studies of systems subjected to significant regional climate change—and with known sensitivities to that change—find changes that are consistent with well-established relationships between climate and physical or biological processes (e.g., shifts in the energy balance of glaciers, shifts in the ranges of animals and plants when temperatures exceed physiological thresholds) in about 80% of biological cases and about 99% of physical cases. Table TS-16 shows ~450 changes in processes or species that have been associated with regional temperature changes. Figure TS-11 illustrates locations at which studies have documented regional temperature change impacts. These consistencies enhance our confidence in the associations between changes in regional climate and observed changes in physical and biological systems. Based on observed changes, there is high confidence that 20th century climate changes have had a discernible impact on many physical and biological systems. Changes in biota and physical systems observed in the 20th century indicate that these systems are sensitive to climatic changes that are small relative to changes that have been projected for the 21st century. High sensitivity of biological systems to long-term climatic change also is demonstrated by paleorecords. [19.2.2.]

Signals of regional climate change impacts are expected to be clearer in physical and biotic systems than in social and economic systems, which are simultaneously undergoing many complex non-climate-related stresses, such as population growth and urbanization. Preliminary indications suggest that some social and economic systems have been affected in part by 20th century regional climate changes (e.g., increased damages by floods and droughts in some locations, with apparent increases in insurance impacts). Coincident or alternative explanations for such observed regional impacts result in only low to medium confidence about determining whether climate change is affecting these systems. []

Table TS-16: Processes and species found in studies to be associated with regional temperature change.a
Region Glaciers, Snow Cover/ Melt, Lake/ Stream Iceb Vegetation Invertebrates Amphibians and Reptiles Birds Mammals
Africa 1 0
Antarctica 3 2 2 0 2 0
Asia 14 0
Australia 1 0
Europe 29 4 13 1 46 1 7 0 258 92 7 0
North America 36 4 32 11 17 4 3 0
Latin America 3 0 22 0 15 0
Total 87 10 47 12 46 1 29 0 292 96 10 0
a The columns represent the number of species and processes in each region that were found in each particular study to be associated with regional temperature change. For inclusion in the table, each study needed to show that the species or process was changing over time and that the regional temperature was changing over time; most studies also found a significant association between how the temperature and species or processes were changing The first number indicates the number of species or processes changing in the manner predicted with global warming. The second number is the number of species or processes changing in a manner opposite to that predicted with a warming planet. Empty cells indicate that no studies were found for this region and category.
b Sea ice not included.
7.2. Five Reasons for Concern

Figure TS-12: Impacts of or risks from climate change, by reason for concern. Each row corresponds to a reason for concern, and shades correspond to severity of impact or risk. White means no or virtually neutral impact or risk, yellow means somewhat negative impacts or low risks, and red means more negative impacts or higher risks. Global-averaged temperatures in the 20th century increased by 0.6°C and led to some impacts. Impacts are plotted against increases in global mean temperature after 1990. This figure addresses only how impacts or risks change as thresholds of increase in global mean temperature are crossed, not how impacts or risks change at different rates of change in climate. These temperatures should be taken as approximate indications of impacts, not as absolute thresholds.

Some of the current knowledge about climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation is synthesized here along five reasons for concern: unique and threatened systems, global aggregate impacts, distribution of impacts, extreme weather events, and large-scale singular events. Consideration of these reasons for concern contribute to understanding of vulnerabilities and potential benefits associated with human-induced climate change that can aid deliberations by policymakers of what could constitute dangerous interference with the climate system in the context of Article 2 of the UNFCCC. No single dimension is paramount.

Figure TS-12 presents qualitative findings about climate change impacts related to the reasons for concern. At a small increase in global mean temperature,3 some of the reasons for concern show the potential for negative impacts, whereas others show little adverse impact or risk. At higher temperature increases, all lines of evidence show a potential for adverse impacts, with impacts in each reason for concern becoming more negative at increasing temperatures. There is high confidence in this general relationship between impacts and temperature change, but confidence generally is low in estimates of temperature change thresholds at which different categories of impacts would happen. [19.8]

7.2.1. Unique and Threatened Systems

Small increases in global average temperature may cause significant and irreversible damage to some systems and species, including possible local, regional, or global loss. Some plant and animal species, natural systems, and human settlements are highly sensitive to climate and are likely to be adversely affected by climate changes associated with scenarios of <1°C mean global warming. Adverse impacts to species and systems would become more numerous and more serious for climatic changes that would accompany a global mean warming of 1-2°C and are highly likely to become even more numerous and serious at higher temperatures. The greater the rate and magnitude of temperature and other climatic changes, the greater the likelihood that critical thresholds of systems would be surpassed. Many of these threatened systems are at risk from climate change because they face nonclimate pressures such as those related to human land use, land-use change, and pollution. [19.3]

Species that may be threatened with local or global extinction by changes in climate that may accompany a small mean global temperature increase include critically endangered species generally, species with small ranges and low population densities, species with restricted habitat requirements, and species for which suitable habitat is patchy in distribution, particularly if under pressure from human land-use and land-cover change. Examples of species that may be threatened by small changes include forest birds in Tanzania, the Resplendent Quetzal in Central America, the mountain gorilla in Africa, amphibians that are endemic to cloud forests of the neotropics, the spectacled bear of the Andes, the Bengal tiger and other species that are endemic to the Sundarban wetlands, and rainfall-sensitive plant species that are endemic to the Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa. Natural systems that may be threatened include coral reefs, mangroves, and other coastal wetlands; montane ecosystems that are restricted to the upper 200-300 m of mountainous areas; prairie wetlands; remnant native grasslands; coldwater and some coolwater fish habitat; ecosystems overlying permafrost; and ice edge ecosystems that provide habitat for polar bears and penguins. Human settlements that may be placed at serious risk by changes in climate and sea level that may be associated with medium to large mean warming include some settlements of low-lying coastal areas and islands, floodplains, and hillsides—particularly those of low socioeconomic status such as squatter and other informal settlements. Other potentially threatened settlements include traditional peoples that are highly dependent on natural resources that are sensitive to climate change. [19.3]

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