Abrupt climate change: can society cope?

TitleAbrupt climate change: can society cope?
Publication TypeTyndall Working Paper
SeriesTyndall Centre Working Papers
Tyndall Consortium Institution


Secondary TitleTyndall Centre Working Paper 30
AuthorsHulme, M.
Year of Publication2003

Consideration of abrupt climate change has generally neither been incorporated in analyses of climate change impacts nor in the design of climate adaptation strategies. Yet the possibility of abrupt climate change triggered by human perturbation of the climate system is used to support the position of both those who urge stronger and earlier mitigative action than is currently being contemplated and those who argue that the unknowns in the Earth System are too large to justify such early action. This paper explores the question of abrupt climate change in terms of its potential implications for society, focusing on the UK and northwest Europe in particular. The nature of abrupt climate change and the different ways in which it has been defined and perceived are examined. Using the example of the collapse of the thermohaline circulation, the suggested implications for society of abrupt climate change are reviewed; previous work has been largely speculative and has generally considered the implications only from economic and ecological perspectives. Some observations about the implications from a more social and behavioural science perspective are made. If abrupt climate change simply implies changes in the occurrence or intensity of extreme weather events, or an accelerated uni-directional change in climate, the design of adaptation to climate change can proceed within the existing paradigm, with appropriate adjustments. Limits to adaptation in some sectors or regions may be reached, and the costs of appropriate adaptive behaviour may be large, but strategy can develop on the basis of a predicted long-term uni-directional change in climate. More challenging, however, would be if abrupt climate change implied a directional change in climate, as for example might well occur in northwest Europe following a collapse of the thermohaline circulation. There are two fundamental problems for society associated with such an outcome; first, the future changes in climate currently being anticipated and prepared for might reverse and, second, the probability of such a scenario occurring remains fundamentally unknown. The implications of both problems for climate policy and for decision-making have not been researched. It is premature to argue therefore that abrupt climate change - in the sense referred to here - imposes unacceptable costs on society or the world economy, represents a catastrophic impact of climate change, or constitutes a dangerous change in climate that should be avoided at all reasonable cost. The paper concludes by examining the implications of this contention for future research and policy formation. This paper was presented at the Royal Society Discussion Meeting, 4-5 February 2003 "Abrupt climate change: evidence, mechanisms and implications"

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