The IPCC AR6 WG2 Report: A Teachers’ Guide

This teachers’ guide is part of a series helping educators and students to understand the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment.

Continue reading here for part two of the guide – a summary on the second report on the on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. If you missed it, click here to go to part 1, summarising the first report focusing on the scientific basis for climate change.

While this article is free for you to read and digest, all such educational work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee.

This is part 2 of my teachers’ guide for the IPCC’s 6th Assessment (AR6) on climate change. Part 1 covered the report released last year on the updated science on climate change. Now the IPCC’s Working Group 2 (WG2) report, focusing on the impacts of climate change, is out. Having completed a read of the report myself, I can say with some morbidness but conviction, that the terms climate crisis and climate emergency are well and truly justified.

Just like I recommended in part 1, if you want a very quick summary do check out Climate Adam’s video (and subscribe to their channel, while you’re at it!). But do read on for a distillation of the report, which will allow teachers and educators to update their knowledge.

Preface: Key Terminology & Structure

There are many key terms in the Summary For Policymakers (SPM) report. Most of which you may have come across before, but there are some which are relatively new and I strongly believe we all should be aware of. Two examples are climate resilient development and maladaptation. Such terms are defined in the report, but I will include a scaled-down glossary at the bottom of this blog for all terms that I have highlighted in bold.

However, I will focus on climate resilient development briefly now, as it is a core thread that runs through the report. Breaking down the diagram below gives a very good understanding to the term. At the moment, human society is very much operating in a world of climate risks (left diagram). We are vulnerable due to the impacts and risk brought about by climate change, which in turn are impacting on ecosystems and biodiversity. All of these are interlinked, or as the report puts it “coupled”. This preface is exceptionally important, as impacts from climate change don’t simply upset single issues in isolation – as you will see later. The red arrows show the negative interactions between each of the three parts, such as greenhouse gas emissions influencing climate change, which in turn impacts human society and ecosystems. Also in red is maladaptation, where human efforts doesn’t help or it even hinders resilience to climate change.

IPCC AR6 WG2 Figure SPM.1: From climate risk to climate resilient development: climate, ecosystems (including biodiversity) and human society as coupled systems

The world we must move towards is one that engages in climate resilient development (right-hand diagram). The blue and green arrows are stronger here, as human systems and ecosystems are supportive of each other, leading to a reduction of impacts from climate change. The science behind what we should be doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change will be the focus of the third IPCC AR6 report (WG3) out later this year.

I would strongly recommend picking this diagram apart from a teaching and learning point of view. An idea would be to perhaps assign one interaction (arrow) to a pair or group of students, and ask them to come up with examples. For instance, how human society can conserve or restore ecosystems could be through the protection of peat-lands and saltmarshes.

Observed Impacts from Climate Change (SPM pp7-11)

The findings of the report make it absolutely unequivocal. Climate change is here. It is happening now, and it is happening everywhere.

KEY MESSAGES

  • Extreme events have become more frequent and intense extreme events
  • Widespread negative impacts, loss and damage to nature and people is taking place
  • Such impacts would not be happening if climate change was natural
  • Some development and adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability, but the most vulnerable people and systems are disproportionately affected.
  • The rise in weather and climate extremes has already led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt

Adapted from Box SPM.B.1 (p7)

There is not a single ecosystem, in at least some part of the world, where scientists have doubt that climate change is having an impact. According to the report, the highest confidence of complete global impacts are on changes to land-based ecosystem structures, shifting the range of land-based species and the seasonal timing (or phenology) of when these species migrate, mate, bloom etc. With regards to changing structures and shifting species ranges across the entire planet, scientists are very confident that this is happening in the oceans too. Two examples are warm-water coral bleaching and death, and on land, the loss of trees due to increased drought. Reading this part of the report, I recall a conversation I had with geography teacher Phil Humphreys regarding the ‘divorce’ of albatrosses due to climate change (from 26:20 onwards).

Perhaps much of these kind of impacts could be considered ‘old news’ (rather morbidly), as there are no shortage of new and information out there about how human activity and climate change is wreaking havoc on our natural systems. More of an eye-brow raiser is how these impacts are having a knock-on impact not just our physical well-being, but mental well-being too.

IPCC AR6 WG2 Figure SPM.2b: Observed impacts of climate change on human systems. The darker colour of the circles indicate the level of confidence in the science, with the darkest being ‘high or ‘very high’ confidence. The minuses (-) represent negative impacts, and the plus/minuses (±) mean that there are both negative and positive impacts. Notice that there are no circles at all that solely have a positive (+) symbol.

The impacts happening already are pretty bleak for our cities, settlements and infrastructure. Scientists are convinced that small island nations, North America, the Arctic, mountain regions and cities by the sea are suffering today because of climate change. The main issues cited are extremes heatwaves which are made worse by the urban heat-island effect in cities. This also makes air pollution worse. There is a clear climate justice message in the findings too. More than once it is mentioned that the poorest and least-influential people are impacted worst, such as residents in informal settlements. Each time there is an extreme event, be it heat, cold, or a flood etc, transportation, water, sanitation and energy systems have been impacted, which has led to economic losses and disruptions of services.

In terms of human well-being, there is not a single positive. Infectious diseases, heat and malnutrition have all been made worse in almost all corners of the globe.The research is also very confident that the displacement (or forced migration, if you will) of people is happening at least in part due to climate change in areas of Africa, Asia and North America. Most notably, and for the first time in such a comprehensive scientific report, is the mention of the impact to mental health. This is not just climate anxiety, which I have talked about a lot in the past, but this also the trauma due to suffering directly from the impacts of climate change.

Vulnerability and Exposure of Ecosystems and People (SPM pp11-13)

KEY MESSAGES

  • There are strong differences regarding the level of vulnerability between different regions and people. This is due to unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, colonialism, neo-colonialism and inequity in who has power and how countries are run.
  • Just under half of the world’s population (approx. 3.3 to 3.6 billion people) are highly vulnerable to climate change, in one way or another.
  • A high proportion of species is vulnerable to climate change.
  • Humans and ecosystems are interconnected, so the risks ecosystems face are impacting humans.
  • Development continues to be mostly unsustainable and this is making ecosystems and people more vulnerable to climate hazards.

Adapted from Box SPM.B.2 (p11)

What educators should pick up from this section is the strong moral of climate justice. The science now clearly backs up what many social commentators and academics have been saying for a long time, and that is climate change is impacting the least privileged and least powerful the most. In particular, those people who rely on direct interactions with natural systems. For example, the report mentions that the loss of ecosystems is having a global impact on Indigenous Peoples and local communities who use such systems to meet basic needs. These groups are finally getting the exposure they deserve in such authoritative scientific reports.

Perhaps rather daringly, the report explicitly mentions, with high confidence, the impact of colonialism making groups of people more vulnerable to climate change. NB: It’s going to get increasingly difficult for government departments to dictate or mandate both the teaching of sound high-confidence science as fact but gag educators when it comes to social justice issues related to said science! Another shameless podcast plug here; a strong recommendation to listen to Dr Keston Perry talk about their work about climate justice and the Caribbean. Also worth a listen is a special podcast chat recorded with the ENVCast chatting to folks with indigenous backgrounds about climate change.

Risks in the near term (2021-2040) (SPM pp13-14)

My youngest child is in Reception (Kindergarten). Children who have started their formal schooling this academic year will see their entire youth through the period up to around 2040. If my eldest and some of their peers go onto higher education, they could be graduating about the end of this period, only just about to embark on their formal adult lives.

KEY MESSAGES

  • There is a greater than 50-50 chance that global warming will reach or exceed 1.5°C in the near term and would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans
  • The level of risk will depend on what we do right now, today.
  • Not allowing warming to go too far beyond 1.5°C would have massive benefits compared to higher warming levels, but cannot eliminate all risks or negative changes. Some are already set in stone.

Adapted from Box SPM.B.3 (p13)

This section of the report more-or-less state that the aforementioned risks and impacts will get worse across the globe in almost all human regions and ecosystems if we don’t take action in an equitable way. Scientists are sure that kelp and sea-grass ecosystems, Arctic sea-ice and land, and warm-water coral reefs will be at particular risk over the next couple of decades. The other impact they are pretty certain of is sea level rise flooding coastal settlements and infrastructure, and irreversibly lock-in low-lying coastal ecosystems to sink underwater. Although more research is needed, there is some confidence that climate change will have a hand in violent conflict and forced-migration patterns, but the main triggers for the time being will remain socioeconomic and leadership.

During the period up to 2040, what will have the greatest influence on how vulnerable different groups and ecosystems are to climate change is not how much we continue to burn fossil fuels etc, but how effective we are at increasing our resilience in an equitable way. But course, continuing to do the former while only focusing on the latter is not exactly a great long-term strategy, which is why mitigation and adaptation must happen at the same time.

Mid to Long-term Risks (2041–2100) (SPM pp14-18)

If my children are fortunate enough to live to at least their life expectancy, they will see 2100. Remember when 2100 felt like a long way away? And that some people criticised scientists for communicating heavily with reference to 2100? This is no longer just our grand-children’s future. It’s our children’s.

The report really goes to town here, as it looks into multiple different warming scenarios. Getting to this point of the report was a huge mental toil, I admit. I was searching for any positive. In a strange way, I found it by having this section being quite detailed on all the different scenarios. None of them make for great reading, but what it does do is clearly demonstrate to us that if we act, we can avoid some devastating changes.

KEY MESSAGES

  • Beyond 2040 climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems.
  • How much so will depend on our actions. Even every small increase of global warming will cause greater losses and damages.
  • Research shows that for a range of risks, impacts in this time frame are up to multiple times higher than what we are seeing happening today.

Adapted from Box SPM.B.4 (p14)

Equally, I could be more detailed in my summary here compared to the other sections. Instead, I’ll focus around this section’s main figure.

IPCC AR6 WG2 Figure SPM.3a (left): A classic graph that we’ve see before, with the different projections for future warming. These are based on ‘Shared Socioeconomic Pathways’ (SSPs) which if you are inclined know the details, you can read here. In a nutshell, SSP1-2.6 is a ‘Green Road’; what we need to do to keep to the Paris Climate Agreement (warming to at least below 2°C), while SSP3-7.0 is a ‘Rocky Road’ where there is regional rivalry which hinders mitigation and adaptation. This could lead to warming around 3-5°C. Figure SPM.3b (right) is deliberately juxtaposed with the graph. Each bar shows that with greater warming, the risk increases. Scientists are very confident what a world would look like in a best-case scenario with little warming, and are pretty confident in the risks particularly to ‘unique’ systems (like coral reefs, arctic ice etc) and extreme weather events. In short, any warming beyond the Paris Climate Agreement target of ‘under 2°C’ is very undesirable.

Figure SPM.3f in the SPM report (Examples of regional risks, p17) I think condenses information well enough in itself without the need for me to distill it further. But I will pick one risk from each region to highlight examples of what could get increasingly worse the more we cause climate change and the less resilient we are.

All of these have at least a medium confidence level in the science:

  • Small Islands: Risk to water security in almost every small island;
  • North America: Risk to food and nutritional security through changes in agriculture, livestock, hunting, fisheries etc;
  • Europe: Stress and mortality to people due to increasing temperatures and heat extremes;
  • Central & South America: Severe health effects due to increasing epidemics, in particular vector-borne diseases;
  • Australasia: Impact on livelihoods and incomes due to decline in agriculture;
  • Asia: Decline in coastal fisheries due to sea level rise, decrease in precipitation in some parts and increase in temperature;
  • Africa: Reduced economic output and growth, and increased inequality and poverty rates.

Complex, Compound and Cascading Risks (SPM pp18-20)

KEY MESSAGES

  • As time goes on, climate change impacts and risks are becoming more difficult to manage.
  • Multiple climate hazards will happen at the same time and some will interact with non-climatic hazards causing further increased risk and knock-on impacts (cascading risks).
  • Some responses to climate change result in new impacts and risks.

Adapted from Box SPM.B.5 (p18)

This section of the report contains some key messages, highlighting the increasing evidence that risks and impacts from climate change combine and can trigger one another. For example, there is high confidence that as heat extremes become more frequent, there will be an increase in the risk of drought, crop loss and tree death. Sea-level rise will combine with storm surges and higher levels of rainfall to increase the risk of flooding.

I feel it is very important to understand interconnections. Remember, the report started with those two diagrams showing inter-connectivity between human and natural systems. An example of this in which there is high confidence, is sudden food production losses from heat and drought, made worse by the suffering of those who work the land, causing an increase in food prices, reduction of household income, health issues, the lack of ability to further adapt etc.

Failure to become climate resilient both through mitigation and adaption will make both this actions even more difficult. An example given is the change in precipitation patterns and levels leading to less power and water being supplied by hydroelectric dams and their reservoirs. They become less effective as a renewable energy source, and as a way of irrigating crops.

Worth mentioning, because it is a new focus for an IPCC report, are poor efforts of adaptation or maladaptation. The report warns that turning to bioenergy for example, if ‘poorly managed’, will very likely hinder carbon sinks by removing forests. It even says not to put too much stock on what some may feel is the ‘sci-fi’ approach: geoengineering techniques such as attempting to reduce the amount of solar radiation being absorbed and reflected by Earth’s surface (solar shields? cloud seeding?). Such efforts won’t reduce greenhouse gasses or deal with ocean acidification.

Impacts of Temporary Overshoot (SPM p20)

This short section was really interesting for me at least, and I think would be for many people too. This section is effectively an update of the key points from the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C, released in 2018. It has been a focus for discussion via the media. What if our efforts are semi-successful and we avoid the worst but still overshoot our targets aligned to say the Paris Climate Agreement?

KEY MESSAGES

  • If global warming overshoots 1.5°C, then many human and natural systems will face additional severe risks, compared to remaining below 1.5°C.
  • There is some confidence that this overshoot could cause the release of additional greenhouse gases, such as increased wildfires, tree die-out, drying of peatlands, and thawing of permafrost, and so weakening natural land carbon sinks.
  • Some of these changes will be irreversible even if global warming is reduced.

Adapted from Box SPM.B.6 (p20)

Listed with high confidence of irreversible impacts if we overshoot 1.5°C before 2100, are those which will occur on polar, mountain, and coastal ecosystems, mostly due to ice-sheet and glacier melt and sea level rise. Low-lying coastal areas which include human settlement and certain ecosystems will be impacted. I’m picturing the likes of saltmarshes, the Fens and Broads here in my part of the world.

Future Adaptation Options and their Feasibility (pp20-30)

The second-half of the report which focuses on adaptation and resilience is somewhat cumbersome to read but no less important. Rather than summarise each individual part of the remaining two sections, I’ll focus on the highlights.

KEY MESSAGES

  • The progress we have seen regarding climate adaptation in all regions and sectors have been beneficial, but it is uneven, creating an ‘adaptation gap’.
  • There are many examples of maladaptation in many sectors and regions, leading to greater vulnerability and risk, and making existing inequalities worse.
  • Many efforts are focussing on adapting to short-term risks, rather than on those which can make real systematic change which would be better in long-term. Maladaptation can be avoided with more collaboration and long-term planning.
  • There are plenty of effective, workable solutions already available, but access to many is uneven.
  • Solutions that work across sectors and addresses social inequalities benefits adaptation efforts overall.
  • Some soft limits to human adaptation have been reached but can be overcome with political, financial and institutional will.
  • Hard limits to adaptation have been reached in some ecosystems, and as global warming increases, losses and damages will mean more human and natural systems will hit these limits.
  • Political will that is meaningful, committed and followed-through can be a catalyst for solutions.

Adapted from Boxes SPM.C.1-5 (pp21-29)

Given all the mention in this section about ‘cross-sector’ efforts and social inequality, it is no surprise that reference has been made to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This rather complex looking figure is not so terrible to look at if you focus on one element. Again, this is very much a follow-on and progression from the findings presented in the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C.

IPCC AR6 WG2 Figure SPM.4b: Looks at a number of climate responses and adaptations and the extent they are compatible with each of the SDGs. While there are a smattering of ‘dis-benefits’ were action would go against a specific SDG, the vast majority will support them. This is a clear indication that working towards SDG 13 (Climate Action) can underpin efforts to achieving other goals.

Focusing on just one or two elements of this diagram would make for a very good research or enquiry project, I feel. Students could pick something that interests them. One of my interests is energy, so I would take a look at why taking climate action through our energy systems appear to have total benefits. SDGs 1-6 (no poverty, zero hunger, good health & well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water & sanitation) and SDG 10 (reducing inequality) are all helped by having resilient power systems and energy reliability. With regards to SDG 10, I am currently reading up on how the development of sustainable renewable energy in which indigenous groups are fully involved stakeholders have multiple benefits for both the local and global community. You can find a few examples through this article on the Indigenous Climate Hub website.

Climate Resilient Development (pp30-35)

While the report mostly makes for depressing reading, I feel that the authors recognise this and that’s why they book-ended it focusing on climate resilient development, to demonstrate there is a way out and how it could benefit human and natural systems alike. We can still make it happen.

KEY MESSAGES

  • Due to greater understanding of climate risks, and that we are already facing those risks today, worldwide climate resilient development action is more urgent than was called for in the last IPCC assessment.
  • Climate resilient development will happen if governments, society and the private sector are all on board, and prioritise equity and justice, and that they work together on all levels including internationally.
  • Partnerships must be developed with traditionally marginalised groups, including women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, local communities and ethnic minorities.
  • Urbanisation on one hand can pose a big challenge to climate resilient development but also offers great opportunities.
  • Safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems is key to climate resilient development.
  • Not enough has been done, or is being done to work towards climate resilient development. What happens in the next decade will be crucial.

Adapted from Boxes SPM.D.1-5 (pp30-35)

This is definitely the ‘heaviest’ section of the report. Fortunately for those of us who want to grasp basic understanding it does come with probably my favourite visualisation of the whole thing.

IPCC AR6 WG2 Figure SPM.5: Illustrating the development choices we can make as a society and the pathways they could lead to. The green cogs represent choices which fully engage with ecosystem stewardship, equity and justice, inclusion and shared knowledge. Red cogs, the complete opposite. Yellow cogs are where most choices made are positive, but not perfect, while orange cogs are mostly negative choices with a few good efforts. I think we’re currently on that orange, or orangey-red path right now! The shock icons represent major events such as pandemics, droughts, floods etc. The diagram shows that the greener the path, the more resilient we are to such shocks – there may be a little wobble, but things would keep progressing the right direction.

I wouldn’t have put it past old-teacher-me to have printed this out on large paper, and offered it up to students with a die and counters to gamify it. Can they make it along the sustainable path where climate resilient development is at its highest? Can students come up with examples and decisions made which would be a ‘green cog’ decision or a ‘red cog’ one? I think this diagram would make a fantastic premise for an NEA, perhaps.


So, there is my attempted to condense a 35 page scientific document into, hopefully, a valuable summary which makes the report more accessible. I have mentioned before that I am a strong believer that in order for educators to teach about the climate crisis adequately and with confidence, then having a working understanding of what the IPCC reports say is fundamental.

Glossary

Part adapted from the WG2 SPM report:

  • 1.5°C overshoot: pathways that first exceed a global warming level of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (usually by more than 0.1°C) for at least one decade, and then return to or below that level again before 2100.
  • Adaptation: in human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate harm or take advantage of beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, adaptation is the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate this.
  • Adaptation limits: the point at which intolerable risks can be avoided through adaptive actions. Hard: No adaptive actions are possible to avoid intolerable risks. Soft: Options may exist but are currently not available to avoid intolerable risks through adaptive action.
  • Exposure: the presence of people; livelihoods; species or ecosystems; services and resources; infrastructure etc in places and settings that could be adversely affected.
  • Justice: the moral or legal principles of fairness and equity in the way people are treated. Social justice comprises just or fair relations within society that seek to address the distribution of wealth, access to resources, opportunity and support according to principles of justice and fairness. Climate justice comprises justice that links development and human rights to achieve a rights-based approach to addressing climate change.
  • Maladaptation: actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change, more inequitable outcomes, or diminished welfare, now or in the future. Most often, maladaptation is an unintended consequence.
  • Phenology: cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.
  • Resilience: the capacity of social, economic and ecosystems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance. Resilience is a positive attribute when it maintains such a capacity for adaptation, learning, and/or transformation.
  • Risk: the potential for adverse consequences for human or ecological systems, recognising the diversity of values and objectives associated with such systems. Cascading risks are when the impacts of one risk triggers or makes another risk greater, such as increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves leading to greater risk of drought and famine.
  • Vulnerability: the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected and encompasses a variety of concepts and elements, including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt.

Reference for the IPCC report:

IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

Cover artwork: A Borrowed Planet – Inherited from our ancestors. On loan from our children. by Alisa Singer, http://www.environmentalgraphiti.org


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Citing this post

APA: Rackley, K. (2022, March 18). The IPCC AR6 WG2 Report: A Teachers’ Guide [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://geogramblings.com/2022/03/18/the-ipcc-ar6-wg2-report-a-teachers-guide/

MLA: Rackley, Kit. “The IPCC AR6 WG2 Report: A Teachers’ Guide”. Geogramblings. 18 Mar. 2022, https://geogramblings.com/2022/03/18/the-ipcc-ar6-wg2-report-a-teachers-guide/

Harvard: Rackley, K. (2022). The IPCC AR6 WG2 Report: A Teachers’ Guide [Online]. Geogramblings. Available at: https://geogramblings.com/2022/03/18/the-ipcc-ar6-wg2-report-a-teachers-guide/ (Accessed: day month year)

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