The Regional Impacts of Climate Change

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Approach of the Assessment

This report assesses the vulnerability of natural and social systems of major regions of the world to climate change. Vulnerability is defined as the extent to which a natural or social system is susceptible to sustaining damage from climate change. Vulnerability is a function of the sensitivity of a system to changes in climate (the degree to which a system will respond to a given change in climate, including both beneficial and harmful effects) and the ability to adapt the system to changes in climate (the degree to which adjustments in practices, processes, or structures can moderate or offset the potential for damage or take advantage of opportunities created, due to a given change in climate). Under this framework, a highly vulnerable system would be one that is highly sensitive to modest changes in climate, where the sensitivity includes the potential for substantial harmful effects, and one for which the ability to adapt is severely constrained.

Because the available studies have not employed a common set of climate scenarios and methods, and because of uncertainties regarding the sensitivities and adaptability of natural and social systems, the assessment of regional vulnerabilities is necessarily qualitative. However, the report provides substantial and indispensable information on what currently is known about vulnerability to climate change.

In a number of instances, quantitative estimates of impacts of climate change are cited in the report. Such estimates are dependent upon the specific assumptions employed regarding future changes in climate, as well as upon the particular methods and models applied in the analyses. To interpret these estimates, it is important to bear in mind that uncertainties regarding the character, magnitude, and rates of future climate change remain. These uncertainties impose limitations on the ability of scientists to project impacts of climate change, particularly at regional and smaller scales.

It is in part because of the uncertainties regarding how climate will change that this report takes the approach of assessing vulnerabilities rather than assessing quantitatively the expected impacts of climate change. The estimates are best interpreted as illustrative of the potential character and approximate magnitudes of impacts that may result from specific scenarios of climate change. They serve as indicators of sensitivities and possible vulnerabilities. Most commonly, the estimates are based upon changes in equilibrium climate that have been simulated to result from an equivalent doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Usually the simulations have excluded the effects of aerosols. Increases in global mean temperatures corresponding to these scenarios mostly fall in the range of 2-5C. To provide a temporal context for these scenarios, the range of projected global mean warming by 2100 is 1-3.5C accompanied by a mean sea-level rise of 15-95 cm, according to the IPCC Second Assessment Report. General circulation model (GCM) results are used in this analysis to justify the order of magnitude of the changes used in the sensitivity analyses. They are not predictions that climate will change by specific magnitudes in particular countries or regions. The amount of literature available for assessment varies in quantity and quality among the regions.

Overview of Regional Vulnerabilities to Global Climate Change

Article 2 of the UNFCCC explicitly acknowledges the importance of natural ecosystems, food production, and sustainable economic development (see Box). This report's assessment of regional vulnerability to climate change focuses on ecosystems, hydrology and water resources, food and fiber production, coastal systems, human settlements, human health, and other sectors or systems (including the climate system) important to 10 regions that encompass the Earth's land surface. Wide variation in the vulnerability of similar sectors or systems is to be expected across regions, as a consequence of regional differences in local environmental conditions, preexisting stresses to ecosystems, current resource-use patterns, and the framework of factors affecting decisionmaking-including government policies, prices, preferences, and values. Nonetheless, some general observations, based on information contained in the SAR and synthesized from the regional analyses in this assessment, provide a global context for the assessment of each region's vulnerability.

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