Assessing the observed impact of anthropogenic climate change

Abstract

Impacts of recent regional changes in climate on natural and human systems are documented across the globe, yet studies explicitly linking these observations to anthropogenic forcing of the climate are scarce. Here we provide a systematic assessment of the role of anthropogenic climate change for the range of impacts of regional climate trends reported in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. We find that almost two-thirds of the impacts related to atmospheric and ocean temperature can be confidently attributed to anthropogenic forcing. In contrast, evidence connecting changes in precipitation and their respective impacts to human influence is still weak. Moreover, anthropogenic climate change has been a major influence for approximately three-quarters of the impacts observed on continental scales. Hence the effects of anthropogenic emissions can now be discerned not only globally, but also at more regional and local scales for a variety of natural and human systems.

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Figure 1: Schematic showing the approach of this analysis.
Figure 2: Average penalties arising from the nine individual steps of the confidence algorithm for the list of impacts analysed.
Figure 3: Confidence level distribution for 118 assessments.
Figure 4: Distribution of confidence levels for impact attribution (horizontal axis) and climate attribution (vertical axis) for the 118 impact–climate trend pairs analysed.
Figure 5: Observed impacts of anthropogenic climate change for the period 1971–2010.
Figure 6: Normalized distributions of region sizes over attribution confidence levels for the combined assessment and the individual steps.

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Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge the IPCC WGII AR5 working group on detection and attribution for their contribution to the impact attribution assessment and the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP. We thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. We wish to thank M. Auffhammer, W. Cramer, C. Huggel, R. Leemans and U. Molau for useful comments, and Y. Estrada for outstanding support with graphics. G.H. was supported by a grant from the German Ministry for Education and Research. D.S. was supported by the US Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, under contract number DE-AC02-05CH11231.

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G.H. and D.S. designed the research and prepared the input data, D.S. performed the calculations, G.H. analysed output, G.H. prepared the manuscript with input from D.S.

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Correspondence to Gerrit Hansen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hansen, G., Stone, D. Assessing the observed impact of anthropogenic climate change. Nature Clim Change 6, 532–537 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2896

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