19.3.7 Update on ‘Reasons for Concern’
The TAR (Smith et al., 2001; IPCC, 2001b) identified five ‘reasons for concern’ about climate change and showed schematically how their seriousness would increase with global mean temperature change. In this section, the ‘reasons for concern’ are updated.
Unique and threatened systems
The TAR concluded that there is medium confidence that an increase in global mean temperature of 2°C above 1990 levels or less would harm several such systems, in particular coral reefs and coastal regions.
Since the TAR, there is new and much stronger evidence of observed impacts of climate change on unique and vulnerable systems (see Sections 1.3.4 and 1.3.5; Parmesan and Yohe, 2003; Root et al., 2003, 2005; Menzel et al., 2006), many of which are described as already being adversely affected by climate change. This is particularly evident in polar ecosystems (e.g., ACIA, 2005). Furthermore, confidence has increased that an increase in global mean temperature of up to 2°C relative to 1990 temperatures will pose significant risks to many unique and vulnerable systems, including many biodiversity hotspots (e.g., Hare, 2003; Leemans and Eickhout, 2004; Malcolm et al., 2006). In summary, there is now high confidence that a warming of up to 2°C above 1990-2000 levels would have significant impacts on many unique and vulnerable systems, and is likely to increase the endangered status of many threatened species, with increasing adverse impacts and confidence in this conclusion at higher levels of temperature increase.
The TAR concluded that there is high confidence that the frequency and magnitude of many extreme climate-related events (e.g., heatwaves, tropical cyclone intensities) will increase with a temperature increase of less than 2°C above 1990 levels; and that this increase and consequent damages will become greater at higher temperatures.
Recent extreme climate events have demonstrated that such events can cause significant loss of life and property damage in both developing and developed countries (e.g., Schär et al., 2004). While individual events cannot be attributed solely to anthropogenic climate change, recent research indicates that human influence has already increased the risk of certain extreme events such as heatwaves (**) and intense tropical cyclones (*) (Stott et al., 2004; Emanuel, 2005; Webster et al., 2005; Trenberth et al., 2007; Bindoff et al., 2007). There is high confidence that a warming of up to 2°C above 1990-2000 levels would increase the risk of many extreme events, including floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires, with increasing levels of adverse impacts and confidence in this conclusion at higher levels of temperature increase.
Distribution of impacts
Chapter 19 of the WGII TAR (Smith et al., 2001) concluded that there is high confidence that developing countries will be more vulnerable to climate change than developed countries; medium confidence that a warming of less than 2°C above 1990 levels would have net negative impacts on market sectors in many developing countries and net positive impacts on market sectors in many developed countries; and high confidence that above 2 to 3°C, there would be net negative impacts in many developed countries and additional negative impacts in many developing countries.
There is still high confidence that the distribution of impacts will be uneven and that low-latitude, less-developed areas are generally at greatest risk due to both higher sensitivity and lower adaptive capacity. However, recent work has shown that vulnerability to climate change is also highly variable within individual countries. As a consequence, some population groups in developed countries are also highly vulnerable even to a warming of less than 2°C (see, e.g., Section 12.4.). For instance, indigenous populations in high-latitude areas are already faced with significant adverse impacts from climate change to date (see Section 14.4; ACIA, 2005), and the increasing number of coastal dwellers, particularly in areas subject to tropical cyclones, are facing increasing risks (Christensen et al., 2007 Box 11.5; Section 11.9.5). There is high confidence that warming of 1 to 2°C above 1990-2000 levels would include key negative impacts in some regions of the world (e.g., Arctic nations, small islands), and pose new and significant threats to certain highly vulnerable population groups in other regions (e.g., high-altitude communities, coastal-zone communities with significant poverty levels), with increasing levels of adverse impacts and confidence in this conclusion at higher levels of temperature increase.
Chapter 19 of the WGII TAR (Smith et al., 2001) concluded that there is medium confidence that with an increase in global mean temperature of up to 2°C above 1990 levels, aggregate market sector impacts would be plus or minus a few percent of gross world product, but most people in the world would be negatively affected. Studies of aggregate economic impacts found net damages beyond temperature increases of 2 to 3°C above 1990 levels, with increasing damages at higher magnitudes of climate change.
The findings of the TAR are consistent with more recent studies, as reviewed in Hitz and Smith (2004). Many limitations of aggregated climate impact estimates have already been noted in the TAR, such as difficulties in the valuation of non-market impacts, the scarcity of studies outside a few developed countries, the focus of most studies on selected effects of a smooth mean temperature increase, and a preliminary representation of adaptation and development. Recent studies have included some of these previously unaccounted for aspects, such as flood damage to agriculture (Rosenzweig et al., 2002) and damages from increased cyclone intensity (Climate Risk Management Limited, 2005). These studies imply that the physical impacts and costs associated with these neglected aspects of climate change may be very significant. Different analytic techniques (e.g., Nordhaus, 2006) can result in estimates of higher net damages; inclusion of indirect effects can increase the magnitude of impacts (e.g., Fankhauser and Tol, 2005; Stern, 2007). Other studies reinforce the finding of potential benefits at a few degrees of warming, followed by damages with more warming (Maddison, 2003; Tol, 2005). However, long-term costs from even a few degrees of warming, such as eventual rise in sea level (e.g., Overpeck et al., 2006), are not included in aggregate damage estimates. In addition, the current literature is limited in accounting for the economic opportunities that can be created by climate change.
On balance, the current generation of aggregate estimates in the literature is more likely than not to understate the actual costs of climate change. Consequently, it is possible 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 estimated in the TAR.
The literature also includes analysis of aggregate impacts of climate change other than monetary effects. Parry et al. (1999) found that climate change could adversely affect hundreds of millions of people through increased risk of coastal flooding, reduction in water supplies, increased risk of malnutrition and increased risk of exposure to disease. All of these impacts would directly affect human health. The ‘Global Burden of Disease’ study estimated that the climate change that has occurred since 1990 has increased mortality, and that projected climate change will increase future disease burdens even with adaptation (McMichael et al., 2004). There is low to medium confidence that most people in the world will be negatively affected at global mean temperature increases of 1-2°C above 1990-2000 levels, with increasing levels of adverse impacts and confidence in this conclusion at higher levels of temperature increase.
The TAR concluded that there is low to medium confidence that a rapid warming of over 3°C would trigger large-scale singularities in the climate system, such as changes in climate variability (e.g., ENSO changes), breakdown of the thermohaline circulation (THC – or equivalently, meridional overturning circulation, MOC), deglaciation of the WAIS, and climate–biosphere–carbon cycle feedbacks. However, determining the trigger points and timing of large-scale singularities was seen as difficult because of the many complex interactions of the climate system.
Since the TAR, the literature offers more specific guidance on possible thresholds for partial or near-complete deglaciation of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. There is medium confidence that at least partial deglaciation of the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly the WAIS, would occur over a period of time ranging from centuries to millennia for a global average temperature increase of 1-4°C (relative to 1990-2000), causing a contribution to sea-level rise of 4-6 m or more (Section 126.96.36.199; Jansen et al., 2007 Section 6.4; Meehl et al., 2007 Sections 10.7.4.3 and 10.7.4.4; Oppenheimer and Alley, 2004, 2005; Hansen, 2005; Otto-Bliesner et al., 2006; Overpeck et al., 2006). Since the TAR, there is more confidence in projections of the climate consequences of feedbacks in the carbon cycle (see Section 188.8.131.52).