Linking local impacts to changes in climate: a guide to attribution

Abstract

Assessing past impacts of observed climate change on natural, human and managed systems requires detailed knowledge about the effects of both climatic and other drivers of change, and their respective interaction. Resulting requirements with regard to system understanding and long-term observational data can be prohibitive for quantitative detection and attribution methods, especially in the case of human systems and in regions with poor monitoring records. To enable a structured examination of past impacts in such cases, we follow the logic of quantitative attribution assessments, however, allowing for qualitative methods and different types of evidence. We demonstrate how multiple lines of evidence can be integrated in support of attribution exercises for human and managed systems. Results show that careful analysis can allow for attribution statements without explicit end-to-end modeling of the whole climate-impact system. However, care must be taken not to overstate or generalize the results and to avoid bias when the analysis is motivated by and limited to observations considered consistent with climate change impacts.

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Acknowledgments

We thank all members of the IPCC WG2 cross chapter working group on detection and attribution for valuable input and inspiring discussions during the fifth assessment report cycle. Multifaceted support during preparation of the manuscript by Andy R. Solow is acknowledged with deep gratitude. GH was supported by the German Ministry for Education and Research. DS was supported by the United States Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research’s Regional, and Global Climate Modeling Program under contract number DE-AC02-05CH11231. WC contributes to the Labex OT-Med (n° ANR-11-LABX-0061) funded by the French government through the A*MIDEX project (n° ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02).

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Correspondence to Gerrit Hansen.

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Editor: Will Steffen.

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Hansen, G., Stone, D., Auffhammer, M. et al. Linking local impacts to changes in climate: a guide to attribution. Reg Environ Change 16, 527–541 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-015-0760-y

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Keywords

  • Observed impacts of climate change
  • Impact detection
  • Attribution
  • Human and managed systems
  • Multiple drivers