The hazard components of representative key risks: the physical climate perspective

The framework of Representative Key Risks (RKRs) has been adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II to categorize, assess and communicate a wide range of regional and sectoral key risks from climate change. These are risks expected to become severe due to the potentially detrimental convergence of changing climate conditions with the exposure and vulnerability of human and natural systems. Other papers in this special issue treat each of eight RKRs holistically by assessing their current status and future evolution as a result of this convergence. However, in these papers, such assessment cannot always be organized according to a systematic gradation of climatic changes. Often the big-picture evolution of risk has to be extrapolated from either qualitative effects of “low”, “medium” and “high” warming, or limited/focused analysis of the consequences of particular mitigation choices (e.g., benefits of limiting warming to 1.5 or 2C), together with consideration of the socio-economic context and possible adaptation choices that factor in the risk assessment.

In this study we offer a representation – as systematic as possible given current literature and assessments – of the future evolution of the hazard components of RKRs. We draw on the assessment of changes in climatic impact-drivers relevant to RKRs described in the 6th Assessment Report by Working Group I (WGI) supplemented when needed by more recent literature.

We identify the relevant hazards for each RKR, based upon the WGII authors’ assessment, and we report on their current state and expected future changes in magnitude, intensity and/or frequency, linking these changes to Global Warming Levels (GWLs) to the extent possible.

For some of these quantities – like regional trends in oceanic and atmospheric temperature and precipitation, some heat and precipitation extremes, permafrost thaw and Northern Hemisphere snow cover – a strong and quantitative relationship with increasing GWLs has been identified. For others – like frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones and extra-tropical storms, and fire weather – that link can only be described qualitatively. For some processes – like the behavior of ice sheets, or changes in circulation dynamics – large uncertainties about the effects of different GWLs remain, and for a few others – like ocean pH and air pollution – the composition of the scenario of anthropogenic emissions is most relevant, rather than the warming reached. In almost all cases, however, the basic message remains that every small increment in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and associated warming will bring changes in climate phenomena that will contribute to increasing risk of impacts on human and natural systems in the absence of compensating changes in these systems’ exposure and vulnerability, and in the absence of effective adaptation. Our picture of the evolution of RKR-relevant climatic impact-drivers complements and enriches the treatment of RKRs in the other papers in at least two ways: by filling in an often only cursory or limited representation of the physical climate aspects driving impacts, and by providing a fuller representation of their future potential evolution, an important component – if never the only one – of the potential future evolution of risk severity.

Tebaldi C., Aðalgeirsdóttir G., Drijfhout S., Dunne J., Edwards T. L., Fischer E., Fyfe J. C., Jones R. G., Kopp R. E., Koven C., Krinner G., Otto F., Ruane A. C., Seneviratne S. I., Sillmann J., Szopa S. & Zanis P., in press. The hazard components of representative key risks: the physical climate perspective. Climate Risk Management. Article.

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