A Busy Teacher’s Guide to the IPCC AR6 Release

In between other headlines this week, you may have seen that the IPCC has published their Sixth Assessment Report. While the headlines have rapidly faded in to other news, and even the publication of other reports, it’s a critical piece of work that points the direction of global agreements and international bodies in the next few years.

But what does it mean for classroom teachers, and what should you do with it?

What is it? Who wrote it? Where does it come from? What’s it for?

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a body of the United Nations.
  • Since 1988, they’ve been getting the world’s best climate and policy scientists together to produce regular reports on the science of climate change. They come out about every four years.  
  • They work in three areas: the physical science basis (Working Group 1), a group who look at the likely  impacts and vulnerabilities (Working Group 2) and a group that look at the potential mitigation strategies for climate change (Working Group 3).
  • These reports are hugely detailed and complex. They are very academic, and written by experts for experts. They release them in stages.
  • The intention is to be scientific, objective and apolitical. They make statements about ‘confidence’ and ‘likelihood’ for their estimates, and set out options for decision-makers. They do not often make significant policy recommendations or preferred courses of action.
  • The report that has just been released is different. It’s the “Summary for Policymakers”. It’s the document that you give to Presidents and Prime Ministers – and say “this is what you really need to know”.
  • It aims to be shorter, more accessible and highlight key conclusions, figures and trends. It’s probably fair to say that most world leaders will not read the detailed Working Group reports!

What does it say?

  • Human activities have unequivocally caused about 1.1 deg of warming. Greenhouse emissions have continued to increased, and the patterns are unsustainable and unequal.
  • Widespread impacts have occurred in every sphere of the planet (atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, biosphere). Human caused climate change is affecting extreme weather patterns.
  • There are significant adverse impacts and losses, and damage to nature and people. This includes impacts on food security, water security and human development. Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed least are often disproportionately affected. Urban areas are vulnerable.
  • These statements are not new. For the first time, the IPCC has chosen to show the impacts of this variation in “climate stripes” and generational terms (Figure SPM.1), which is a powerful message for students.
  • Progress in adaptation is happening, but the IPCC suggests that it is variable, with poor financial flows and problems particularly for developing countries. There is a discussion about which techniques work well for adapting, but most observed responses are fragmented, with significant gaps, and an unequal distribution globally.
  • Previous Reports have identified possible pathways for modelled outcomes. This report shows that while many have been implemented, they are likely to fail to limit warming to 1.5 deg C, and it is likely that we will exceed 2 deg C.
  • Future climate change is significant and brings intensification of hazards and vulnerability. Each increment of change is describe and mapped (Figure SPM.2) which shows impacts in different areas.
  • This report suggests that many risks are significantly higher than in the previous assessment, with complexities and compound risks creating significant management challenges (Figure SPM.3). These will make global inequality worse, not better (Figure SPM.4).   
  • Solutions from around the world are described and explored, but these are significantly variable across sectors, countries, and levels of economic development. Adoption of low emission lags in most developing countries.
  • Future changes are only limited by “deep, rapid and sustained global greenhouse gas emissions reduction” (Figure SPM.5). This sets up a significant challenge for e.g. COP28 to solve – how do we get fossil fuel and GHG reductions urgently agreed?
  • The longer we wait, the less likely the solutions are to work (Figure SPM.6). Rapid actions are beneficial, and would reduce losses and damages. They may have co-benefits for air quality and health.
  • For the first time, a concept of “overshoot” and reduction by “achieving and sustaining net negative global CO2” is described. This is a big shift – historically, carbon reduction technologies have not been included or discussed at all. This could be due to changes in technology, or a deliberate decision based on risk mitigation.

Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence). There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence). Climate resilient development integrates adaptation and mitigation to advance sustainable development for all, and is enabled by increased international cooperation including improved access to adequate financial resources, particularly for vulnerable regions, sectors and groups, and inclusive governance and coordinated policies (high confidence). The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years (high confidence).

There are multiple opportunities for action (Figure SPM.7) but most need significant structural, political and financial investment at the macro-scale. A range of potential solutions and impacts on systems and infrastructures are described.

Clear political leadership and governance is explicitly called for. Finance, technology and international co operation are described as critical enablers.

The report offers a range of areas of optimism; suggesting that capital and impacts are all available if leadership is sufficiently motivated to enact them.

What are the key things to do with it?

First, I think it’s worth reading some of the report – particularly the highlighted boxes and the figures. This probably takes 10-15 minutes for a teacher. You may want to read some of the further text. Alternatively, thanks to @Geography_Paul, you may want to explore this summary video which is excellent.

I would download the figures and look for ways to include them in lesson content. They fit obviously in to climate change or physical geography topics, but also in to development, inequality, and global governance themes too. They are high quality, large resolution – you may want to crop some to focus on one specific section.

I think A Level students – and good GCSE students – are capable of reading this text. Most KS4-5 students could make sense of the highlighted boxes, and discuss the Figures. You might want to give some scaffolding to interpret confidence language (See Table 1 of this document) and what “very likely” means for the IPCC etc.

I’d expect the version to be cleaned up in the next few days – the current draft has markings and components on it. You may want to produce some excerpts from the highlighted boxes for your lesson content and slides – it’s good top level material.

If you have existing climate change resources, then it’s worth setting aside time to incorporate the latest information from this report in to them at a future date.

What can I do next? How do I integrate it in to lessons? What do I need to think about for students?

This offers exceptionally clear and helpful summaries of key issues. You could easily print and use as a resource, or use information pieces out of this to help direct student understanding in key topics.

It also offers, with some other resources, a great starting point for decision making or evaluative enquiry questions in the classroom. Some examples are given here.

Regional & Spatial Evaluation of Impact. You could use the report as source material to focus on particular areas of the world, or to build on existing place studies in your curriculum. What are the system interactions, complexities and likely impacts for a chosen place? What aspects of vulnerability are described and more likely now?

Assessment & Evaluation of Governance: You could use the UN’s own timeline of actions to identify what’s happened so far. This could become an evaluation of the limits of intergovernmental action in a global governance lesson, a discussion about stakeholders in a COP evaluation, or you could make up provocative essay questions like “Is COP fundamentally flawed?” to probe student understanding of the complexities of solutions.

Solutions focus: You could use the EN-ROADS simulator to explore the options, limits and impacts of different mechanisms for solution. I’ve identified different ways of doing that – from teacher resource, to full COP-simulator activity – and you can pivot from the AR6 report in to “what do we think the solutions will be?” quite comfortably. If you want to extent the learning in to a full synthesis, you could even evaluate a “why haven’t global governance systems been able to do what we’ve just done?” and incorporate the previous activity too!

Students may well feel concerned about the generational impact and severity of this report. However, the scope of the solutions and potential implementation offer some hope – and it could be used to strongly motivate them to act, make their voices heard in directing key goals, and to help be part of that future!


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