The Regional Impacts of Climate Change

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Coastal Systems

Coastal zones are characterized by a rich diversity of ecosystems and a great number of socioeconomic activities. Coastal human populations in many countries have been growing at double the national rate of population growth. It is currently estimated that about half of the global population lives in coastal zones, although there is large variation among countries. Changes in climate will affect coastal systems through sea-level rise and an increase in storm-surge hazards and possible changes in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme events.

Coasts in many countries currently face severe sea-level rise problems as a consequence of tectonically and anthropogenically induced subsidence. An estimated 46 million people per year currently are at risk of flooding from storm surges. Climate change will exacerbate these problems, leading to potential impacts on ecosystems and human coastal infrastructure. Large numbers of people also are potentially affected by sea-level rise-for example, tens of millions of people in Bangladesh would be displaced by a 1-m increase (the top of the range of IPCC Working Group I estimates for 2100) in the absence of adaptation measures. A growing number of extremely large cities are located in coastal areas, which means that large amounts of infrastructure may be affected. Although annual protection costs for many nations are relatively modest-about 0.1% of gross domestic product (GDP)-the average annual costs to many small island states total several percent of GDP. For some island nations, the high cost of providing storm-surge protection would make it essentially infeasible, especially given the limited availability of capital for investment.

Beaches, dunes, estuaries, and coastal wetlands adapt naturally and dynamically to changes in prevailing winds and seas, as well as sea-level changes; in areas where infrastructure development is not extensive, planned retreat and accommodation to changes may be possible. It also may be possible to rebuild or relocate capital assets at the end of their design life. In other areas, however, accommodation and planned retreat are not viable options, and protection using hard structures (e.g., dikes, levees, floodwalls, and barriers) and soft structures (e.g., beach nourishment, dune restoration, and wetland creation) will be necessary. Factors that limit the implementation of these options include inadequate financial resources, limited institutional and technological capability, and shortages of trained personnel. In most regions, current coastal management and planning frameworks do not take account of the vulnerability of key systems to changes in climate and sea level or long lead times for implementation of many adaptation measures. Inappropriate policies encourage development in impact-prone areas. Given increasing population density in coastal zones, long lead times for implementation of many adaptation measures, and institutional, financial, and technological limitations (particularly in many developing countries), coastal systems should be considered vulnerable to changes in climate.

Human Health

In much of the world, life expectancy is increasing; in addition, infant and child mortality in most developing countries is dropping. Against this positive backdrop, however, there appears to be a widespread increase in new and resurgent vector-borne and infectious diseases, such as dengue, malaria, hantavirus, and cholera. In addition, the percentage of the developing world's population living in cities is expected to increase from 25% (in 1960) to more than 50% by 2020, with percentages in some regions far exceeding these averages. These changes will bring benefits only if accompanied by increased access to services such as sanitation and potable water supplies; they also can lead to serious urban environmental problems, including air pollution (e.g., particulates, surface ozone, and lead), poor sanitation, and associated problems in water quality and potability, if access to services is not improved.

Climate change could affect human health through increases in heat-stress mortality, tropical vector-borne diseases, urban air pollution problems, and decreases in cold-related illnesses. Compared with the total burden of ill health, these problems are not likely to be large. In the aggregate, however, the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on human health do constitute a hazard to human population health, especially in developing countries in the tropics and subtropics; these impacts have considerable potential to cause significant loss of life, affect communities, and increase health-care costs and lost work days. Model projections (which entail necessary simplifying assumptions) indicate that the geographical zone of potential malaria transmission would expand in response to global mean temperature increases at the upper part of the IPCC-projected range (3-5C by 2100), increasing the affected proportion of the world's population from approximately 45% to approximately 60% by the latter half of the next century. Areas where malaria is currently endemic could experience intensified transmission (on the order of 50-80 million additional annual cases, relative to an estimated global background total of 500 million cases). Some increases in non-vector-borne infectious diseases-such as salmonellosis, cholera, and giardiasis-also could occur as a result of elevated temperatures and increased flooding. However, quantifying the projected health impacts is difficult because the extent of climate-induced health disorders depends on other factors-such as migration, provision of clean urban environments, improved nutrition, increased availability of potable water, improvements in sanitation, the extent of disease vector-control measures, changes in resistance of vector organisms to insecticides, and more widespread availability of health care. Human health is vulnerable to changes in climate-particularly in urban areas, where access to space conditioning may be limited, as well as in areas where exposure to vector-borne and communicable diseases may increase and health-care delivery and basic services, such as sanitation, are poor.


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