IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report

5.2 Key vulnerabilities, impacts and risks – long-term perspectives

The five ‘reasons for concern’ identified in the TAR are now assessed to be stronger with many risks identified with higher confidence. Some are projected to be larger or to occur at lower increases in temperature. This is due to (1) better understanding of the magnitude of impacts and risks associated with increases in global average temperature and GHG concentrations, including vulnerability to present-day climate variability, (2) more precise identification of the circumstances that make systems, sectors, groups and regions especially vulnerable and (3) growing evidence that the risk of very large impacts on multiple century time scales would continue to increase as long as GHG concentrations and temperature continue to increase. Understanding about the relationship between impacts (the basis for ‘reasons for concern’ in the TAR) and vulnerability (that includes the ability to adapt to impacts) has improved. {WGII 4.4, 5.4, 19.ES, 19.3.7, TS.4.6; WGIII 3.5, SPM}

The TAR concluded that vulnerability to climate change is a function of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Adaptation can reduce sensitivity to climate change while mitigation can reduce the exposure to climate change, including its rate and extent. Both conclusions are confirmed in this assessment. {WGII 20.2, 20.7.3}

No single metric can adequately describe the diversity of key vulnerabilities or support their ranking. A sample of relevant impacts is provided in Figure 3.6. The estimation of key vulnerabilities in any system, and damage implied, will depend on exposure (the rate and magnitude of climate change), sensitivity, which is determined in part and where relevant by development status, and adaptive capacity. Some key vulnerabilities may be linked to thresholds; in some cases these may cause a system to shift from one state to another, whereas others have thresholds that are defined subjectively and thus depend on societal values. {WGII 19.ES, 19.1}

Key Vulnerabilities and Article 2 of the UNFCCC

Article 2 of the UNFCCC states:

“The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Determining what constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” in relation to Article 2 of the UNFCCC involves value judgements. Science can support informed decisions on this issue, including by providing criteria for judging which vulnerabilities might be labelled ‘key’. {SYR 3.3, WGII 19.ES}

Key vulnerabilities[25] may be associated with many climate-sensitive systems, including food supply, infrastructure, health, water resources, coastal systems, ecosystems, global biogeochemical cycles, ice sheets and modes of oceanic and atmospheric circulation. {WGII 19.ES}

More specific information is now available across the regions of the world concerning the nature of future impacts, including for some places not covered in previous assessments. {WGII SPM}

The five ‘reasons for concern’ that were identified in the TAR were intended to synthesise information on climate risks and key vulnerabilities and to “aid readers in making their own determination” about risk. These remain a viable framework to consider key vulnerabilities, and they have been updated in the AR4. {TAR WGII Chapter 19; WGII SPM}

  • Risks to unique and threatened systems. There is new and stronger evidence of observed impacts of climate change on unique and vulnerable systems (such as polar and high mountain communities and ecosystems), with increasing levels of adverse impacts as temperatures increase further. An increasing risk of species extinction and coral reef damage is projected with higher confidence than in the TAR as warming proceeds. There is medium confidence that approximately 20 to 30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5 to 2.5°C over 1980-1999 levels. Confidence has increased that a 1 to 2°C increase in global mean temperature above 1990 levels (about 1.5 to 2.5°C above pre-industrial) poses significant risks to many unique and threatened systems including many biodiversity hotspots. Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality, unless there is thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals. Increasing vulnerability of Arctic indigenous communities and small island communities to warming is projected. {SYR 3.3, 3.4, Figure 3.6, Table 3.2; WGII 4.ES, 4.4, 6.4, 14.4.6, 15.ES, 15.4, 15.6, 16.ES, 16.2.1, 16.4, Table 19.1, 19.3.7, TS.5.3, Figure TS.12, Figure TS.14}
  • Risks of extreme weather events. Responses to some recent extreme climate events reveal higher levels of vulnerability in both developing and developed countries than was assessed in the TAR. There is now higher confidence in the projected increases in droughts, heat waves and floods, as well as their adverse impacts. As summarised in Table 3.2, increases in drought, heat waves and floods are projected in many regions and would have mostly adverse impacts, including increased water stress and wild fire frequency, adverse effects on food production, adverse health effects, increased flood risk and extreme high sea level, and damage to infrastructure. {SYR 3.2, 3.3, Table 3.2; WGI 10.3, Table SPM.2; WGII 1.3, 5.4, 7.1, 7.5, 8.2, 12.6, 19.3, Table 19.1, Table SPM.1}
  • Distribution of impacts and vulnerabilities. There are sharp differences across regions and those in the weakest economic position are often the most vulnerable to climate change and are frequently the most susceptible to climate-related damages, especially when they face multiple stresses. There is increasing evidence of greater vulnerability of specific groups such as the poor and elderly not only in developing but also in developed countries. There is greater confidence in the projected regional patterns of climate change (see Topic 3.2) and in the projections of regional impacts, enabling better identification of particularly vulnerable systems, sectors and regions (see Topic 3.3). Moreover, there is increased evidence that low-latitude and less-developed areas generally face greater risk, for example in dry areas and megadeltas. New studies confirm that Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents because of the range of projected impacts, multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity. Substantial risks due to sea level rise are projected particularly for Asian megadeltas and for small island communities. {SYR 3.2, 3.3, 5.4; WGI 11.2-11.7, SPM; WGII 3.4.3, 5.3, 5.4, 8.1.1, 8.4.2,, 8.7, 9.ES, Boxes 7.1 and 7.4, Table 10.9, 10.6, 16.3, 19.ES, 19.3, Table 19.1, 20.ES, TS.4.5, TS.5.4, Tables TS.1, TS.3, TS.4, SPM}
  • Aggregate impacts. Compared to the TAR, initial net market-based benefits from climate change are projected to peak at a lower magnitude and therefore sooner than was assessed in the TAR. It is likely that there will be higher damages for larger magnitudes of global temperature increase than estimated in the TAR, and the net costs of impacts of increased warming are projected to increase over time. Aggregate impacts have also been quantified in other metrics (see Topic 3.3): for example, climate change over the next century is likely to adversely affect hundreds of millions of people through increased coastal flooding, reductions in water supplies, increased malnutrition and increased health impacts. {SYR 3.3, Figure 3.6; WGII 19.3.7, 20.7.3, TS.5.3}
  • Risks of large-scale singularities.[26] As discussed in Topic 3.4, during the current century, a large-scale abrupt change in the meridional overturning circulation is very unlikely. There is high confidence that global warming over many centuries would lead to a sea level rise contribution from thermal expansion alone that is projected to be much larger than observed over the 20th century, with loss of coastal area and associated impacts. There is better understanding than in the TAR that the risk of additional contributions to sea level rise from both the Greenland and possibly Antarctic ice sheets may be larger than projected by ice sheet models and could occur on century time scales. This is because ice dynamical processes seen in recent observations but not fully included in ice sheet models assessed in the AR4 could increase the rate of ice loss. Complete deglaciation of the Greenland ice sheet would raise sea level by 7m and could be irreversible. {SYR 3.4; WGI 10.3, Box 10.1; WGII 19.3.7, SPM}
  1. ^  Key Vulnerabilities can be identified based on a number of criteria in the literature, including magnitude, timing, persistence/reversibility, the potential for adaptation, distributional aspects, likelihood and ‘importance’ of the impacts.
  2. ^  See glossary