The IPCC AR6 WG1 Report: A Teachers’ Guide

We need to remember this date, the 9th August 2021. It will be the day history looks back on, indicating that the final warning claxon to avoid the worst of climate change began sounding from scientists. What else will history say? That those in power finally woke up and did something? Or will it be damning, with those still able to learn about human history decendants of the privileged today?

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the long awaited Working Group 1 report of it’s 6th Assessment. Until recently, I was guilty in thinking that only Science and Geography teachers needed to know who the IPCC are. No, all teachers and all students (at least at the secondary phase) need to know who the IPCC are.

Here I defer to the fabulous Climate Adam. Ten minutes well spent, and even better if you head over to YouTube and subscribe to their channel.

A change in tone and delivery

Usually I provide my own commentary when reports like those from the IPCC are released. Back in 2018, I gave my thoughts on their ‘Special Report’ into 1.5°C of warming, and I recommend that for further reading. I focussed a bit on the tone and language used by the report’s authors and editors. Three years later, the tone has not softened at all. In fact, it has become more robust and more urgent. As for commenting on the key messages of the report, I’ll leave that others, as rightly so, there is so much coverage of it out there. Here I recommend another video from Dr Adam Levy, who not only communicates the highlights, but also talks about the tone and message of the report. Indeed, reading the 2-page ‘Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers’ document won’t take you long at all.

A screenshot of the 'Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers' document, with the words 'unequivocal', 'unprecedented' and 'already affecting' highlighted.
The IPCC AR6 WG1 report looked at over 10,000 scientific peer-reviewed studies. When words such as ‘unequivocal’ and ‘unprecented’ are used by science authors, you have to take note.

What I’ll do instead is give a ‘teachers guide’ to the report. Some tid-bits for you all to gain a quick understanding of the key points and visualisations so you can hit the ground running as you prepare for the new academic year… because you’re going to do some stuff on this report and on the run-up to COP26, right? The IPCC is the authoritative source for climate change science. They, the scientists and organisations that contribute or support it, like the UK’s Met Office, should be your go-to.

At the IPCC’s press conference to release the report, Dr Valérie Masson-Delmotte answered a question regarding the way the science was communicated in the report. In part of her response she said:

We would like that the whole report helps enhance climate literacy worldwide; is used in teaching worldwide for teenagers, for students, so that they can learn the latest, best, available knowledge.

Dr Valérie Masson-Delmotte, at the press conference of the release of the IPCC AR6 WG1 report

The ‘Headline Statements’ document attempts to do that in some respect, but it still is a bit heavy with some terminology. Having said that, I know how difficult it is to convert scientific literature into something more widely digestible! I don’t always succeed. I do think that the majority of the statements in that document are accessible, and at the very least will provide an excellent opportunity for improving literacy. You’ll find many key geographical terms in the ‘Headline Statements’ document, especially for Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 students. But here I’ll boil down some of the statements for you even further:

Current State of the Climate

  • A.1 There is no longer any doubt, scientifically, that humans are warming the atmosphere, ocean and land. And these changes are widespread and rapid.
  • A.2 The scale of the changes in climate today have not been seen for hundreds if not thousands of years.
  • A.3 The evidence of a ‘human fingerprint’ in heatwaves, torrential rain, droughts and tropical storms is much stronger.

Possible Climate Futures

  • B.1 We will continue to see warming temperatures until at least 2050 no matter what action we take, but we can still avoid 2°C, even 1.5°C of global warming since pre-industrial times if we make deep cuts to greenhouse gases very soon.
  • B.2 As the world warms, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme heat on both land and in the ocean, heavy downpours, drought in some regions, tropical storms, as well as a loss in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost
  • B.3 Global monsoons will see a greater extremes between wet and dry.
  • B.4 If CO2 emissions continue to rise, then the ocean and land will be able to absorb less and less of it.
  • B.5 Some impacts will be irreversible for 1000’s of years, such as the melting of ice sheets and the raising of sea levels.

Climate Information for Risk Assessment and Regional Adaptation

  • C.1 While natural climate events like El Niño and La Niña will continue to have some impact on areas on small time scales, overall they will have little impact on the long-term trend of a warming planet.
  • C.2 There will be more widespread impacts at 2°C of warming and beyond compared to 1.5°C. (In other words, every fraction of a degree we can avoid, counts)
  • C.3 Even though the collapse of ice sheets and ocean circulations is not likely by 2100, we still shouldn’t ignore their possibility.

Limiting Future Climate Change

  • D.1 CO2 must reach at least ‘net zero’ and a strong cut in other greenhouse gas emissions in order to stop global warming.
  • D.2 Cutting greenhouse gases rapidly and steeply can quickly lead to a more stable climate and better air quality.

Earlier today, climate journalist Eric Holthaus hosted a Twitter Space discussion with a panel of IPCC authors, as part of a week-long discussion. I asked the panel the question regarding why they was a concerted effort to make some outputs of the report more accessible.

Richard Klein said it was “very unfair” that up to now reports such as these were not accessible to students particularly at high-school level. He said that it is them who will be around for the next 80 or so years and therefore have a right to be informed. Peter Thorne chipped in, stressing that it is absolutely key to have an educated public. I strongly agree with them both.

Figuring it out

One of the eye-catching things about the AR6 WG1 report are the figures (visualisations). I have to say, having read the previous two Assessment Reports that in the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ document in particular, they really have done a great job in simplifying the figures but without losing the robustness of their message. I strongly recommend you take a look at that Summary document and scan through the visualisations alone, as they are all brilliant to use with students. Here I’ll go through a select few.

Figure SPM.1: History of global temperature change and causes of recent warming (Source: IPCC AR6 WG1 Summary for Policymakers)

Figure SPM.1. I couldn’t leave out the quintessential. Unless I’m mistaken, this is the first time I’ve seen the IPCC reports using pointer arrows and annotations. That alone makes it so much more intuitive. The labelling is simple and uncluttered, and you can tell at a glance that the warming experienced so far is ‘unprecedented’. The graph effectively helps to define what is meant by that word. The graph on the right, which is ‘zoomed into’ 1850-2020 from the graph on the left helps to visualise the what happens when you change the scale. Unmistakely, we can see that we’ve reached around 1.1-1.2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels, and that cannot be explained by natural causes alone (in blue).

Figure SPM.2: Assessed contributions to observed warming in 2010–2019 relative to 1850–1900. (Source: IPCC AR6 WG1 Summary for Policymakers)

Figure SPM.2. When I’ve created climate change education resources in the past and taught the issue to my students, I’ve done my best to ensure they understand the term ‘climate forcing’. Understanding what is driving changes in climate and recognising how science accounts for them is absolutely crucial to ensure students can trust the science. This figure not only helps with that, but it gets them to see error bars in action. It shows that scientists account for uncertainty and ‘doubt’ (if you like), but still be sure. In the exceptionally unlikely scenario where all the human influences are at the bottom of their error bars, and all the natural influences (solar, volcanoes, internal variability like El Niño) are at the top, well, there is still no competition. This is how scientists can appropriately use terms like ‘unequivocal’.

Figure SPM.3c: Synthesis of assessed observed and attributable regional changes in agricultural and ecological drought. (Source: IPCC AR6 WG1 Summary for Policymakers)

Figure SPM.3c. I know that, in terms of data presentation, this brought some geography teachers joy when they saw it. The distracting squiggly lines of the edge of the world’s continents have been stripped out in favour of hexagons, compelling you to only focus on the colours and the dots. It is a fantastic way of showing whether there has been an possible increase or decrease in drought, but also the level of confidence that current studies suggest humans are to blame. While it’s clear more studies are needed for most parts of the world, scientists are fairly confident that WNA (Western North America) and MED (Mediterranean) are drying due to human induced climate change. And of course, where have we heard of news of wildfires lately?

Figure SPM.6: Projected changes in the intensity and frequency of hot temperature extremes over land. (Source: IPCC AR6 WG1 Summary for Policymakers)

Figure SPM.6. Another way of visualising findings that I’ve never seen in an IPCC report before. In this case, dots have been used to represent multipliers of how much more likely extreme temperatures may occur. And instead of using confusing references to different carbon emission scenarios, it’s communicated by way of saying ‘in a 1.5°C world, in a 2°C world and so forth. Much clearer. It also helps to give the sense that it is never too late. We should do our best to stay below 1.5°C, but if we don’t we can see why working hard to stay below 2°C is far preferable to 3°C , 4°C or more.

An attempt at interactivity

This is the first IPCC report that attempts to put it’s findings into an interactive visualisation.

The IPCC WG1 Interactive Atlas

As someone who has been a project manager for a team making a climate data interactive visualisation, I know how much work goes into it. So while the attempt is very much appreciated and much kudos goes to the creators, I don’t think it’s quite there in terms of accessibility. This is mostly because it doesn’t convert or simplify the language in the same way the static figures do in the report.

I still think it’s worth having a go for sure. And students doing A-Level might be able to get to grips with it. As for the younger ones, at least the mini-interactive globe on the front page is still pretty useful.

Perhaps there are future plans for something more ‘school friendly’. In the mean time, you have tools like WEMC’s Teal (the decendant to the GIS tool I helped develop) or the ImpactLab map to play around with.

I hope you found this useful and that it supports your efforts as we approach COP26. Us educators have a huge part to play in ensuring young people are empowered with the knowledge they need to hold people to account. After all, almost all the world’s governments have signed off on the IPCC report, haven’t they? No excuses.

Reference for the IPCC report:

IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.


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Citing this post

APA: Rackley, K. (2021, August 9). The IPCC AR6 WG1 Report: A Teachers’ Guide [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://geogramblings.com/2021/08/09/the-ipcc-ar6-wg1-report-a-teachers-guide/

MLA: Rackley, Kit. “The IPCC AR6 WG1 Report: A Teachers’ Guide”. Geogramblings. 9 Aug. 2021, https://geogramblings.com/2021/08/09/the-ipcc-ar6-wg1-report-a-teachers-guide/

Harvard: Rackley, K. (2021). The IPCC AR6 WG1 Report: A Teachers’ Guide [Online]. Geogramblings. Available at: https://geogramblings.com/2021/08/09/the-ipcc-ar6-wg1-report-a-teachers-guide/ (Accessed: day month year)

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