Climate change, industry and society

Climate change, industry and society

This article is about climate change, industry and society.



The ability to predict how climate change may affect industry, settlement and society is limited by uncertainites about climate change and future developments in social and economic systems (Wilbanks et al., 2007:364).[1] Research therefore often focuses on vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change, rather than predicting the actual impacts themselves. IPCC (2007d) defined vulnerability (to climate change) as "the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes" (p. 89).[2]

Vulnerabilities in developed areas are often focused on physical assets and infrastructures, with their associated economic value and replacement costs, and their linkages to global markets. In less developed areas, vulnerabilities are often focused on human populations and institutions. Compared with developed countries, the economic costs associated with vulnerabilities in developing countries might be larger as a proportion of the total economy. This is because the economies in developing countries tend to be based more heavily on climate-sensitive activities, like agriculture, than the economies of developed countries (Smith et al., 2001:938-941).[3]

General effects

Gradual climate change, e.g., increased mean temperature, can be associated with thresholds at which the resilience of human systems[clarification needed] switches from adequate to inadequate, such as water-supply infrastructures faced with shrinking water availability (Wilbanks et al., 2007:364).[1] Climate change can also be associated with changes in extreme events, e.g., changes in the magnitude, frequency and/or intensity of storms. With very high confidence, Wilbanks et al. (2007:359) concluded that most of the vulnerabilities to climate change of industry, settlements and society were related to changes in extreme events, rather than to gradual climate change.

Not all implications of possible climate change are negative. For instance, many mid- and upper-latitude areas might see quality-of-life benefits from winter warming. Economic sectors, settlements and social groups can be affected by climate change response policies. For instance, efforts to reduce GHG emissions can affect economies whose development paths are dependent on abundant local fossil-fuel resources.

Human settlement

A number of case studies indicate that climate change will likely increase heat stress in summers while reducing cold-weather stresses in winter (Wilbanks et al., 2007:371-373).[1] Other likely changes include:

  • changes in precipitation patterns and water availability
  • rising sea levels in coastal locations
  • increased risk of extreme weather events, such as severe storms and flooding. Some kinds of extreme events could decrease, such as blizzards and ice storms.

Social issues

There are several serious issues for climate change impacts and response, including (Wilbanks et al., 2007:373-374):[1]

  • The poor, who make up half of the world's population, cannot afford adaptation mechanisms to climate change, such as air conditioning or climate-risk insurance.
  • Impacts in developing countries, where more than 90% of the deaths related to natural disasters occur, and 43% of the urban slums are located.
  • Impacts of climate change are likely to be felt most acutely not only by the poor, but by certain segments of the population, such as the elderly, the very young, indigenous people, and recent immigrants. Impacts will also differ according to gender, particularly in developing countries.

Key vulnerabilities

Most of the key vulnerabilities to climate change are related to (a) climate phenomena that exceed thresholds for adaptation, i.e., extreme weather events and/or abrupt climate change, and (b) limited access to resources (financial, technical, human, institutional) to cope (Wilbanks et al., 2007:374-376).[1] In a literature assessment, Wilbanks et al. (2007:374-376) described key vulnerabilities of industry, settlements and society to climate change. Based on their expert judgement, the authors of the assessment gave each key vulnerability a confidence level. These confidence levels reflect the degree of belief that the authors had in their conclusions being correct:

  • Very high confidence: Interactions between climate change and urbanization: this is most notable in developing countries, where urbanization is often focused in vulnerable areas, e.g., coastal areas.
  • High confidence:
    • Interactions between climate change and global economic growth: stresses due to climate change are not only linked to the impacts of climate change, but also to the impacts of climate change policies. For example, these policies might affect development paths by requiring high cost fuel choices.
    • Fixed physical infrastructures that are important in meeting human needs: These include infrastructures that are susceptible to damage from extreme weather events or sea-level rise, and/or infrastructures that are already close to being inadequate.
  • Medium confidence: Interactions with governmental and social/cultural structures that are already stressed in some places by other kinds of pressures, e.g., limited economic resources.

Systems and sectors

Coasts and low-lying areas

For historical reasons to do with trade, many of the world's largest and most prosperous cities are on the coast. In developing countries, the poorest often live on floodplains, because it is the only available space, or fertile agricultural land. These settlements often lack infrastructure such as dykes and early warning systems. Poorer communities also tend to lack the insurance, savings or access to credit needed to recover from disasters.

In a journal paper, Nicholls and Tol (2006) considered the effects of sea level rise:[4]

[...] The most vulnerable future worlds to sea-level rise appear to be the A2 and B2 [IPCC] scenarios, which primarily reflects differences in the socio-economic situation (coastal population, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and GDP/capita), rather than the magnitude of sea-level rise. Small islands and deltaic settings stand out as being more vulnerable as shown in many earlier analyses. Collectively, these results suggest that human societies will have more choice in how they respond to sea-level rise than is often assumed. However, this conclusion needs to be tempered by recognition that we still do not understand these choices and significant impacts remain possible.

Nicholls et al. (2007:338-339) assessed the literature on climate change impacts in coastal and low-lying areas.[5] They concluded that the socioeconomic impacts of climate change would be overwhelmingly adverse. With very high confidence, IPCC (2007d:48) projected that:[2]

  • coastal and low-lying areas would be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion, due to climate change and sea level rise.
  • by the 2080s, many millions more people would experience floods every year due to sea level rise. The numbers affected were projected to be largest in the densely populated and low-lying megadeltas of Asia and Africa. Small islands were judged to be especially vulnerable.

A study in the April 2007 issue of Environment and Urbanization reports that 634 million people live in coastal areas within 30 feet (9.1 m) of sea level (McGranahan et al., 2007, p. 24).[6] The study also reported that about two thirds of the world's cities with over five million people are located in these low-lying coastal areas.

Northwest Passage

Arctic ice thicknesses changes from 1950s to 2050s simulated in one of GFDL's R30 atmosphere-ocean general circulation model experiments

Melting Arctic ice may open the Northwest Passage in summer, which would cut 5,000 nautical miles (9,000 km) from shipping routes between Europe and Asia. This would be of particular benefit for supertankers which are too big to fit through the Panama Canal and currently have to go around the tip of South America. According to the Canadian Ice Service, the amount of ice in Canada's eastern Arctic Archipelago decreased by 15% between 1969 and 2004.[7]

In September 2007, the Arctic Ice Cap retreated far enough for the Northwest Passage to become navigable to shipping for the first time in recorded history.[8]

In August, 2008, melting sea ice simultaneously opened up the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, making it possible to sail around the Arctic ice cap.[9] The Northwest Passage opened August 25, 2008, and the remaining tongue of ice blocking the Northern Sea Route dissolved a few days later. Because of Arctic shrinkage, the Beluga Shipping group of Bremen, Germany, announced plans to send the first ship through the Northern Sea Route in 2009.[9]

Energy sector

Oil, coal and natural gas

Oil and natural gas infrastructure is vulnerable to the effects and climate change and the increased risk of disasters such as storms, cyclones, flooding and long-term increases in sea level.[10] Minising these risks by building in less-disaster prone areas can be expensive and impossible in countries with coastal locations or island states.[10] Secondly, all thermal power plants depend on water to cool them.[10] This has to be fresh water as salt water can be corrosive.[10] Not only is there increased demand for fresh water, but climate change can increase the likelihood of drought and fresh water shortages.[10] Thirdly, another impact for thermal power plants is that increasing the temperatures in which they operate reduces their efficiency and hence their output.[10] Fourthly, the source of oil often comes from areas prone to high natural disaster risks, such as tropical storms, hurricanes, cyclones and floods.[10] An example is that of Hurricane Katrina's impact on oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico, as it destroyed 126 oil and gas platforms and damaged 183 more.[10]


Climate change, extreme weather and natural disasters can affect nuclear power plants in a similar way to those using oil, coal and natural gas.[10] The damage caused to nuclear power plants is most tragically demonstrated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.[10] However, the impact of water shortages on nuclear power plants is perhaps more visible than on other thermal power plants.[10] Seawater is corrosive and so nuclear energy supply is likely to be negatively affected by the fresh water shortage.[10] This generic problem may become increasingly significant over time.[10] This can force nuclear reactors to be shut down, as happened in France during the 2003 and 2006 heat waves. Nuclear power supply was severely diminished by low river flow rates and droughts, which meant rivers had reached the maximum temperatures for cooling reactors.[10] During the heat waves, 17 reactors had to limit output or shut down. 77% of French electricity is produced by nuclear power and in 2009 a similar situation created a 8GW shortage and forced the French government to import electricity.[10] Other cases have been reported from Germany, where extreme temperatures have reduced nuclear power production 9 times due to high temperatures between 1979 and 2007.[10] In particular:

Similar events have happened elsewhere in Europe during those same hot summers.[10] If global warming continues, this disruption is likely to increase.


Changes in the amount of river flow will correlate with the amount of energy produced by a dam. Lower river flows because of drought, climate change or upstream dams and diversions will reduce the amount of live storage in a reservoir therefore reducing the amount of water that can be used for hydroelectricity. The result of diminished river flow can be power shortages in areas that depend heavily on hydroelectric power. The risk of flow shortage may increase as a result of climate change.[10] Studies from the Colorado River in the United States suggest that modest climate changes, such as an increase in temperature in 2 degree Celsius resulting in a 10% decline in precipitation, might reduce river run-off by up to 40%.[10] Brazil in particular is vulnerable due to its heaving reliance on hydroelectricity, as increasing temperatures, lower water flow and alterations in the rainfall regime, could reduce total energy production by 7% annually by the end of the century.[10]


An industry very directly affected by the risks is the insurance industry.[11] According to a 2005 report from the Association of British Insurers, limiting carbon emissions could avoid 80% of the projected additional annual cost of tropical cyclones by the 2080s.[12] A June 2004 report by the Association of British Insurers declared "Climate change is not a remote issue for future generations to deal with. It is, in various forms, here already, impacting on insurers' businesses now."[13] It noted that weather risks for households and property were already increasing by 2–4 % per year due to changing weather, and that claims for storm and flood damages in the UK had doubled to over £6 billion over the period 1998–2003, compared to the previous five years. The results are rising insurance premiums, and the risk that in some areas flood insurance will become unaffordable for some.

Financial institutions, including the world's two largest insurance companies, Munich Re and Swiss Re, warned in a 2002 study that "the increasing frequency of severe climatic events, coupled with social trends" could cost almost US$ 150 billion each year in the next decade.[14] These costs would, through increased costs related to insurance and disaster relief, burden customers, taxpayers, and industry alike.

In the United States, insurance losses have also greatly increased. According to Choi and Fisher (2003) each 1% increase in annual precipitation could enlarge catastrophe loss by as much as 2.8%.[15] Gross increases are mostly attributed to increased population and property values in vulnerable coastal areas, though there was also an increase in frequency of weather-related events like heavy rainfalls since the 1950s.[16]


Roads, airport runways, railway lines and pipelines, (including oil pipelines, sewers, water mains etc.) may require increased maintenance and renewal as they become subject to greater temperature variation. Regions already adversely affected include areas of permafrost, which are subject to high levels of subsidence, resulting in buckling roads, sunken foundations, and severely cracked runways.[17]

Water resources

In a literature assessment, Kundzewicz et al. (2007:175) concluded, with high confidence, that:[18]

  • the negative impacts of climate change on freshwater systems outweigh the benefits. All of the regions assessed in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, Latin America, North America, Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic), and small islands) showed an overall net negative impact of climate change on water resources and freshwater ecosystems.
  • Semi-arid and arid areas are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change on freshwater. With very high confidence, it was judged that many of these areas, e.g., the Mediterranean basin, western USA, southern Africa, and north-eastern Brazil, would suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change.


Sea level rise is projected to increase salt-water intrusion into groundwater in some regions, affecting drinking water and agriculture in coastal zones.[19] Increased evaporation will reduce the effectiveness of reservoirs. Increased extreme weather means more water falls on hardened ground unable to absorb it, leading to flash floods instead of a replenishment of soil moisture or groundwater levels. In some areas, shrinking glaciers threaten the water supply.[20] The continued retreat of glaciers will have a number of different effects. In areas that are heavily dependent on water runoff from glaciers that melt during the warmer summer months, a continuation of the current retreat will eventually deplete the glacial ice and substantially reduce or eliminate runoff. A reduction in runoff will affect the ability to irrigate crops and will reduce summer stream flows necessary to keep dams and reservoirs replenished. This situation is particularly acute for irrigation in South America, where numerous artificial lakes are filled almost exclusively by glacial melt.[21] Central Asian countries have also been historically dependent on the seasonal glacier melt water for irrigation and drinking supplies. In Norway, the Alps, and the Pacific Northwest of North America, glacier runoff is important for hydropower. Higher temperatures will also increase the demand for water for the purposes of cooling and hydration.

In the Sahel, there has been an unusually wet period from 1950 until 1970, followed by extremely dry years from 1970 to 1990. From 1990 until 2004 rainfall returned to levels slightly below the 1898–1993 average, but year-to-year variability was high.[22][23]


Human beings are exposed to climate change through changing weather patterns (temperature, precipitation, sea-level rise and more frequent extreme events) and indirectly through changes in water, air and food quality and changes in ecosystems, agriculture, industry and settlements and the economy (Confalonieri et al., 2007:393).[24] According to a literature assessment by Confalonieri et al. (2007:393), the effects of climate change to date have been small, but are projected to progressively increase in all countries and regions.

With high confidence, Confalonieri et al. (2007:393) concluded that climate change had altered the seasonal distribution of some allergenic pollen species. With medium confidence, they concluded that climate change had:

  • altered the distribution of some infectious disease vectors
  • increased heatwave-related deaths

With high confidence, IPCC (2007d:48) projected that:[2]

  • the health status of millions of people would be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events; increased burden of diarrhoeal diseases; increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to high concentrations of ground-level ozone in urban areas related to climate change; and altered spatial distribution of some infectious diseases.
  • climate change would bring some benefits in temperate areas, such as fewer deaths from cold exposure, and some mixed effects such as changes in range and transmission potential of malaria in Africa. Overall, IPCC (2007d:48) expected that benefits would be outweighed by negative health effects of rising temperatures, especially in developing countries.

With very high confidence, Confalonieri et al. (2007:393) concluded that economic development was an important component of possible adaptation to climate change. Economic growth on its own, however, was not judged to be sufficient to insulate the world's population from disease and injury due to climate change. The manner in which economic growth occurs was judged to be important, along with how the benefits of growth are distributed in society. Examples of other important factors in determining the health of populations were listed as: education, health care, and public-health infrastructure.

According to a 2009 journal paper by UCL academics, climate change and global warming pose the biggest threat to human health in the 21st century.[25][26]

Direct effects of temperature rise

The most direct effect of climate change on humans might be the impacts of hotter temperatures themselves. Extreme high temperatures increase the number of people who die on a given day for many reasons: people with heart problems are vulnerable because one's cardiovascular system must work harder to keep the body cool during hot weather, heat exhaustion, and some respiratory problems increase. Global warming could mean more cardiovascular diseases, doctors warn.[27] Higher air temperature also increase the concentration of ozone at ground level. In the lower atmosphere, ozone is a harmful pollutant. It damages lung tissues and causes problems for people with asthma and other lung diseases.[28]

Rising temperatures have two opposing direct effects on mortality: higher temperatures in winter reduce deaths from cold; higher temperatures in summer increase heat-related deaths. The net local impact of these two direct effects depends on the current climate in a particular area. Palutikof et al. (1996) calculate that in England and Wales for a 1 °C temperature rise the reduced deaths from cold outweigh the increased deaths from heat, resulting in a reduction in annual average mortality of 7000,[29] while Keatinge et al. (2000) “suggest that any increases in mortality due to increased temperatures would be outweighed by much larger short term declines in cold related mortalities.”[30] Cold-related deaths are far more numerous than heat-related deaths in the United States, Europe, and almost all countries outside the tropics.[31] During 1979–1999, a total of 3,829 deaths in the United States were associated with excessive heat due to weather conditions,[32] while in that same period a total of 13,970 deaths were attributed to hypothermia.[33] In Europe, mean annual heat related mortalities are 304 in North Finland, 445 in Athens, and 40 in London, while cold related mortalities are 2457, 2533, and 3129 respectively.[30] According to Keatinge et al. (2000), “populations in Europe have adjusted successfully to mean summer temperatures ranging from 13.5°C to 24.1°C, and can be expected to adjust to global warming predicted for the next half century with little sustained increase in heat related mortality.”[30]

A government report shows decreased mortality due to recent warming and predicts increased mortality due to future warming in the United Kingdom.[34] The 2003 European heat wave killed 22,000–35,000 people, based on normal mortality rates.[35] Peter A. Stott from the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research estimated with 90% confidence that past human influence on climate was responsible for at least half the risk of the 2003 European summer heat-wave.[36]

Spread of disease

Global warming may extend the favourable zones for vectors[37] conveying infectious disease such as dengue fever,[38] West Nile virus,[39] and malaria.[40][41] In poorer countries, this may simply lead to higher incidence of such diseases. In richer countries, where such diseases have been eliminated or kept in check by vaccination, draining swamps and using pesticides, the consequences may be felt more in economic than health terms. The World Health Organization (WHO) says global warming could lead to a major increase in insect-borne diseases in Britain and Europe, as northern Europe becomes warmer, ticks—which carry encephalitis and lyme disease—and sandflies—which carry visceral leishmaniasis—are likely to move in.[42] However, malaria has always been a common threat in European past, with the last epidemic occurring in the Netherlands during the 1950s. In the United States, Malaria has been endemic in as much as 36 states (including Washington, North Dakota, Michigan and New York) until the 1940s.[43] By 1949, the country was declared free of malaria as a significant public health problem, after more than 4,650,000 house DDT spray applications had been made.[44]

The World Health Organisation estimates 150,000 deaths annually "as a result of climate change", of which half are in the Asia-Pacific region.[45] In April 2008, it reported that, as a result of increased temperatures, the number of malaria infections is expected to increase in the highland areas of Papua New Guinea.[46]


In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued the policy statement Global Climate Change and Children's Health:

Anticipated direct health consequences of climate change include injury and death from extreme weather events and natural disasters, increases in climate-sensitive infectious diseases, increases in air pollution–related illness, and more heat-related, potentially fatal, illness. Within all of these categories, children have increased vulnerability compared with other groups.[47]

On 2008-04-29, a UNICEF UK Report found that global warming is already reducing the quality of the world's most vulnerable children's lives and making it more difficult to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals. Global warming will reduce access to clean water and food supplies, particularly in Africa and Asia. Disasters, violence and disease are expected to be more frequent and intense, making the future of the world's poorest children more bleak.[48]

Limits of human survivability

Some areas of the world would start to surpass the wet-bulb temperature limit of human survivability with global warming of about 6.7 °C (12 °F) while a warming of 11.7 °C (21 °F) would put half of the world's population in an uninhabitable environment.[49][50] In practice the survivable limit of global warming in these areas is probably lower and in practice some areas may experience lethal wet bulb tempatures even earlier, because this study conservatively projected the survival limit for persons who are out of the sun, in gale-force winds, doused with water, wearing no clothing, and not working.[50]


The combined effects of global warming may have particularly harsh effects on people and countries without the resources to mitigate those effects. This may slow economic development and poverty reduction, and make it harder to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).[51]

In October 2004 the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, a coalition of development and environment NGOs, issued a report Up in Smoke on the effects of climate change on development. This report, and the July 2005 report Africa - Up in Smoke? predicted increased hunger and disease due to decreased rainfall and severe weather events, particularly in Africa. These are likely to have severe impacts on development for those affected.

In a literature assessment, Yohe et al. (2007:813) concluded that climate change would very likely make it more difficult for nations to achieve the MDGs for the middle of the century.[52] In the short-term, it was judged very likely that climate change (as attributed with high confidence to human activities) would not be a significant extra impediment to nations reaching their 2015 Millennium Development Targets.


Some Pacific Ocean island nations, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives,[53] are concerned about the possibility of an eventual evacuation, as flood defense may become economically unviable for them, creating climate refugees. Tuvalu already has an ad hoc agreement with New Zealand to allow phased relocation.[54]


According to Wilbanks et al. (2007:365), estimates of the number of people who may become environmental migrants are, at best, guessword since:[1]

  • migrations in areas impacted by climate change are not one-way and permanent
  • the reasons for migration are often multiple and complex, and thus do not relate straightforwardly to climate change
  • there are few reliable censuses or surveys in many parts of the world on which to base such estimates
  • there is a lack of agreement on what an environmental migrant is.

In the 1990s a variety of estimates placed the number of environmental refugees at around 25 million. (Environmental refugees are not included in the official definition of refugees, which only includes migrants fleeing persecution.) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which advises the world’s governments under the auspices of the UN, estimated that 150 million environmental refugees will exist in the year 2050, due mainly to the effects of coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and agricultural disruption (150 million means 1.5% of 2050’s predicted 10 billion world population).[55][56]

Security and conflict

An argument can be made that rising ethnic conflicts may be linked to competition over natural resources that are increasingly scarce as a result of climate change (Wilbanks et al., 2007:365).[1] According to Wilbanks et al. (2007:365), other factors need to be taken into account. It was suggested that major environmentally-influenced conflicts in Africa have more to do with the relative abundance of resources, e.g., oil and diamonds, than with resource scarcity. On this basis, Wilbanks et al. (2007:365) suggested that predictions of future conflicts due climate change should be viewed with caution.

Schneider et al. (2007:787) assessed the literature on key vulnerabilities to climate change.[57] With high confidence, they predicted that stresses such as increased drought, water shortages, and riverine and coastal flooding would affect many local and regional populations. With medium confidence, it was predicted that these stresses would lead, in some cases, to relocation within or between countries. This might have the effect of exacerbating conflicts, and possibly impose migration pressures.

The Military Advisory Board, a panel of retired U.S. generals and admirals released a report entitled "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change." The report predicts that global warming will have security implications, in particular serving as a "threat multiplier" in already volatile regions.[58] Britain's Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett argues that “An unstable climate will exacerbate some of the core drivers of conflict, such as migratory pressures and competition for resources.”[59] And several weeks earlier, U.S. Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NB) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that would require federal intelligence agencies to collaborate on a National Intelligence Estimate to evaluate the security challenges presented by climate change.[60]

In November 2007, two Washington think tanks, the established Center for Strategic and International Studies and the newer Center for a New American Security, published a report analysing the worldwide security implications of three different global warming scenarios. The report considers three different scenarios, two over a roughly 30 year perspective and one covering the time up to 2100. Its general results conclude that flooding "...has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely..." and that "Perhaps the most worrisome problems associated with rising temperatures and sea levels are from large-scale migrations of people — both inside nations and across existing national borders."[61]

A 2009 study questions the assumption that rising temperatures and violence are linked. Richard Tol and Sebastian Wagner collected data on climate and conflict in Europe between the years 1000 and 2000. They concluded that until the mid-18th century, there was a significant negative correlation between the number of conflicts and average temperature, but after that no statistically meaningful relationship can be observed. Tol and Wagner argue that the relationship between warfare and colder weather disappears around the time of the industrial revolution, when agriculture and transport improve dramatically. The Economist suggests that the lesson of their research is that climate-induced conflict can be minimised by continuing the process of crop improvement.[62]

A study by Zhang et al. (2009) used paleoclimate data (paleoclimate is the study of past climate) to examine large scale effects of climate change on the outbreak of war and population decline in the preindustrial era.[63] According to the study, long-term fluctuations of war frequency and population changes have followed cycles of temperature change.


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