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

Executive summary

North America has experienced locally severe economic damage, plus substantial ecosystem, social and cultural disruption from recent weather-related extremes, including hurricanes, other severe storms, floods, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires (very high confidence).

Over the past several decades, economic damage from severe weather has increased dramatically, due largely to increased value of the infrastructure at risk. Annual costs to North America have now reached tens of billions of dollars in damaged property and economic productivity, as well as lives disrupted and lost. [14.2.3, 14.2.6, 14.2.7, 14.2.8]

The vulnerability of North America depends on the effectiveness and timing of adaptation and the distribution of coping capacity, which vary spatially and among sectors (very high confidence).

Although North America has considerable adaptive capacity, actual practices have not always protected people and property from adverse impacts of climate variability and extreme weather events. Especially vulnerable groups include indigenous peoples and those who are socially or economically disadvantaged. Traditions and institutions in North America have encouraged a decentralised response framework where adaptation tends to be reactive, unevenly distributed, and focused on coping with rather than preventing problems. ‘Mainstreaming’ climate change issues into decision making is a key prerequisite for sustainability. [14.2.6, 14.4, 14.5, 14.7]

Coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change impacts interacting with development and pollution (very high confidence).

Sea level is rising along much of the coast, and the rate of change will increase in the future, exacerbating the impacts of progressive inundation, storm-surge flooding and shoreline erosion. Storm impacts are likely to be more severe, especially along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Salt marshes, other coastal habitats, and dependent species are threatened by sea-level rise, fixed structures blocking landward migration, and changes in vegetation. Population growth and the rising value of infrastructure in coastal areas increases vulnerability to climate variability and future climate change. Current adaptation is uneven and readiness for increased exposure is low. [14.2.3, 14.4.3, 14.5]

Climate change will constrain North America’s over-allocated water resources, increasing competition among agricultural, municipal, industrial and ecological uses (very high confidence).

Rising temperatures will diminish snowpack and increase evaporation, affecting seasonal availability of water. Higher demand from economic development, agriculture and population growth will further limit surface and groundwater availability. In the Great Lakes and major river systems, lower levels are likely to exacerbate challenges relating to water quality, navigation, recreation, hydropower generation, water transfers and bi-national relationships. [14.2.1, 14.4.1, 14.4.6, Boxes 14.2 and 14.3]

Climate change impacts on infrastructure and human health and safety in urban centres will be compounded by ageing infrastructure, maladapted urban form and building stock, urban heat islands, air pollution, population growth and an ageing population (very high confidence).

While inertia in the political, economic, and cultural systems complicates near-term action, the long life and high value of North American capital stock make proactive adaptation important for avoiding costly retrofits in coming decades. [14.4.5, 14.4.6, 14.5, Box 14.3]

Without increased investments in countermeasures, hot temperatures and extreme weather are likely to cause increased adverse health impacts from heat-related mortality, pollution, storm-related fatalities and injuries, and infectious diseases (very high confidence).

Historically important countermeasures include early warning and surveillance systems, air conditioning, access to health care, public education, vector control, infrastructure standards and air quality management. Cities that currently experience heatwaves are expected to experience an increase in intensity and duration of these events by the end of the century, with potential for adverse health effects. The growing number of the elderly is most at risk. Water-borne diseases and degraded water quality are very likely to increase with more heavy precipitation. Warming and climate extremes are likely to increase respiratory illness, including exposure to pollen and ozone. Climate change is likely to increase risk and geographic spread of vector-borne infectious diseases, including Lyme disease and West Nile virus. [14.2.5, 14.2.6, 14.4.5, 14.4.6, 14.5]

Disturbances such as wildfire and insect outbreaks are increasing and are likely to intensify in a warmer future with drier soils and longer growing seasons (very high confidence).

Although recent climate trends have increased vegetation growth, continuing increases in disturbances are likely to limit carbon storage, facilitate invasive species, and disrupt ecosystem services. Warmer summer temperatures are expected to extend the annual window of high fire ignition risk by 10-30%, and could result in increased area burned of 74-118% in Canada by 2100. Over the 21st century, pressure for species to shift north and to higher elevations will fundamentally rearrange North American ecosystems. Differential capacities for range shifts and constraints from development, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and broken ecological connections will alter ecosystem structure, function and services. [14.2.4, 14.2.2, 14.4.2, Box 14.1]