188.8.131.52 Critical levels and thresholds
Article 2 of the UNFCCC defines international policy efforts in terms of avoidance of a level of greenhouse gas concentrations beyond which the effects of climate change would be considered to be ‘dangerous’. Discussions about ‘dangerous interference with the climate system‘ and ‘key vulnerabilities‘ are also often framed around thresholds or critical limits (Patwardhan et al., 2003; Izrael, 2004). Key vulnerabilities may be linked to systemic thresholds where non-linear processes cause a system to shift from one major state to another (such as a hypothetical sudden change in the Asian monsoon or disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet). Systemic thresholds may lead to large and widespread consequences that may be considered as ‘dangerous’. Examples include climate impacts such as those arising from ice sheet disintegration leading to large sea-level rises or changes to the carbon cycle, or those affecting natural and managed ecosystems, infrastructure and tourism in the Arctic.
Smooth and gradual climate change may also lead to damages that are considered unacceptable beyond a certain point. For instance, even a gradual and smooth increase of sea-level rise would eventually reach a level that certain stakeholders would consider unacceptable. Such normative impact thresholds could be defined at the global level (e.g., Toth et al., 2002, for natural ecosystems) and some have already been identified at the regional level (e.g., Jones, 2001, for irrigation in Australia).