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

19.4.4 Research needs

The knowledge-base for the assessment of key vulnerabilities and risks from climate change is evolving rapidly. At the same time, there are significant gaps in our knowledge with regard to impacts, the potential and nature of adaptation, and vulnerabilities of human and natural systems. However, as this chapter has tried to bring out, a growing base of information that is likely to be of significance and value to the ongoing policy dialogue does exist.

In this concluding section of the chapter, some of the research priorities from the different domains are highlighted. Clearly, this can only be an indicative list, suggesting areas where new knowledge may have immediate utility and relevance as far as the objective of this chapter is concerned.

This chapter has suggested that key vulnerabilities may be a useful concept for informing the dialogue on dangerous anthropogenic interference. Further elucidation of this concept requires highly interdisciplinary, integrative approaches that are able to capture bio-geophysical and socio-economic processes. In particular, it is worth noting that the socio-economic conditions which determine vulnerability (e.g., number of people at risk, wealth, technology, institutions) change rapidly. Better understanding of the underlying dynamics of these changes at varying scales is essential to improve understanding of key vulnerabilities to climate change. The relevant research questions in this context are not so much how welfare is affected by changing socio-economic conditions, but rather how much change in socio-economic conditions affects vulnerability to climate change. In other words, a key question is how future development paths could increase or decrease vulnerability to climate change.

As this chapter has brought out through the criteria for identifying key vulnerabilities, the responses of human and natural systems, both autonomous and anticipatory, are quite important. Consequently, it is important that the extant literature on this issue is enriched with contributions from disciplines as diverse as political economy and decision theory. In particular, one of the central problems is a better understanding of adaptation and adaptive capacity, and of the practical, institutional, and technical obstacles to the implementation of adaptation strategies. This improvement in understanding will require a richer characterisation of the perception–evaluation–response process at various levels and scales of decision-making, from individuals to households, communities and nations. In this context, it is worth noting that new research approaches may be required. For example, with regard to adaptation, a learning-by-doing approach may be required so that the development of theory occurs in parallel with, and supported by, experience from practice.

A significant category of key vulnerabilities is associated with large-scale, irreversible and systemic changes in geophysical systems. Large-scale changes such as changes in the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, could lead to significant impacts, particularly due to long-term large sea-level rise. Therefore, to obtain improved estimates of impacts from both 21st-century and long-term sea-level rise, new modelling approaches incorporating a better understanding of dynamic processes in ice sheets are urgently needed, as already noted by WGI. Furthermore, central to nearly all the assessments of key vulnerabilities is the need to improve knowledge of climate sensitivity – particularly in the context of risk management – the right-hand tail of the climate sensitivity probability distribution, where the greatest potential for key impacts lies.

Finally, the elucidation and determination of dangerous anthropogenic interference is a complex socio-political process, involving normative judgments. While information on key vulnerabilities will inform and enrich this process, there may be useful insights from the social sciences that might support this process, such as better knowledge of institutional and organisational dynamics, and diverse stakeholder inputs. Also needed are assessments of vulnerability and adaptation that combine top-down climate models with bottom-up social vulnerability assessments.