Green Futures

Editorial – The IPCC Report: Geography, Geographers, and the science and politics of climate change

By Phil Emmerson, Alex Jackman, & Emily Earnshaw, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

On 9th August 2021, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of its sixth assessment report on the current state of climate science and climate change.

The published report summarised the “physical science basis” for climate change. It draws together evidence taken from more than 14,000 peer-reviewed studies in the physical and environmental sciences.

Its findings are stark.

The report concludes that there is now no doubt that human activity has warmed the planet and that this has caused significant and rapid changes to all the earth’s processes, including land, ocean and ice processes.

The climate is now in an “unprecedented” situation that has not been seen for “many thousands of years.” Many, if not all of these changes are irreversible, and there is significant chance that the planet will pass through “tipping points” from which there will be no return.

The report modelled several scenarios for emissions, and in each one global warming is expected to reach 1.5℃ during the early 2030s. This is in contravention to the aims of the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreements, which followed COP21. The report concludes that without reaching net-zero CO2 emissions and strong reductions of other greenhouse gas emissions, the climate will continue to get warmer.

Future anthropogenic emissions of key drivers of climate change and warming contributions by groups of drivers for the five illustrative scenarios used in the IPCC report
Source: IPCC Report, Summary for Policymakers

These projections are clearly bad news, yet despite this, the report does suggest that human intervention can still reduce the rate of warming and mitigate its effects. Doing so will require significant intervention, including a move to negative carbon emissions globally. The evidence is clear that these interventions do work however, and with global government agreement and action, there is still time to mitigate the most catastrophic scenarios that come from climate change.

What is the IPCC report?

Between 1988 and 2020 there were five sets of assessment reports published by the IPCC, with the previous assessment published in 2013-14. Each looks to set out the evidence of climate change, as it is available at the time. This report is the first major part of the sixth assessment cycle for the IPCC. This cycle is due to conclude in 2023.

The IPCC assessment is divided into three working groups, made up of hundreds of scientists. Each group looks at different elements of climate science and each publishing their own report:

  • Working Group 1: The physical sciences basis (published in August 2021)
  • Working Group 2: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (due to publish in February 2022)
  • Working Group 3: Mitigation of climate change (due to publish in March 2022)

Working Group 1 is the first to publish and the report aims to “assesses the current evidence on the physical science of climate change, evaluating knowledge gained from observations, reanalyses, palaeoclimate archives and climate model simulations, as well as physical, chemical and biological climate processes.” The report contains 12 chapters, as well as an online “atlas”, a press briefing document, a short summary for policy makers (which is agreed line by line, by governments), and a technical summary. In total, the report is over 3,000 pages long.

Crucially the IPCC does not present any new evidence in its reports. Instead, it summarises existing scientific evidence to provide both a factual base and recommendations for policy makers based on this. This is not new information; it is a summary of what we already know.

The role of geography and geographers

In a recent commentary in the Geographical Journal, Peter Taylor and Phil O’Keefe argue that Geography has a unique perspective that covers both the human and environmental worlds, which makes it the foremost field of study for addressing climate change. In other words, Geography and Geographers should position themselves at the core of work to not only understand climate change, but also to produce policy that will mitigate and reverse its effects.

Many Geographers have been significantly involved in the IPCC report, with Deliang Chen, Philippe Huybrechts, Peter Thorne, Chris Jones, Kirsten Zickfeld, Dan J Lunt, James Renwick, Tamsin Edwards, Bruce Hewitson, Sergio Vicente-Serrano, and Linda Mearns all acting as lead authors on sections of the report, and many more working as contributing authors. The list of references for the IPCC report also contains papers from key journals in the geographical sciences.

Report ChapterAuthorInstitution Twitter Handle
1Deliang Chen​​​​​​​University of GothenburgCoordinating lead author 
1Philippe HuybrechtsVrije Universiteit BrusselCoordinating lead author 
2Peter ThorneMaynooth University @climpeter
4Chris JonesThe Met Office  
5Kirsten ZickfeldSimon Fraser University @KirstenZickfeld
7Dan J LuntUniversity of Bristol @ClimateSamwell
8James RenwickVictoria University of Wellington | Te Heranga WakaCoordinating lead author@CubaRaglanGuy
9Tamsin Edwards  King’s College London @flimsin
10Bruce HewitsonUniversity of Cape Town  
11Sergio Vicente-SerranoSpanish National Research Council  
AtlasLinda MearnsNational Center For Atmospheric Research  

Geographers from across the discipline will also continue to contribute to the reports from working groups two and three, which will include further engagement from the social sciences side of the discipline also.

Thinking forward – COP26 and beyond

This IPCC report, its findings and warnings all come at a key moment for climate change and the politics that surround it. In November 2021, world leaders, policy makers and scientists will gather in Glasgow for the COP26 conference. It is expected that further commitments will be made about global action to reduce CO2 and other emissions, however, the findings of this report will add some significant urgency to this.

We hope that geographers will continue to contribute to these conversations, both within and outwith their own peer-reviewed publications. Geography Directions has already proven a key space for commentary, analysis and sharing key information related to both climate change and the politics that surround it and we hope that it will continue to be so as the IPCC reports and the COP26 conference take place.

If anyone wishes to contribute, please do visit our guide for authors, or get in touch via journals@rgs.org.


About the authors: Phil Emmerson, Alex Jackman, and Emily Earnshaw all work in the Research and Higher Education Division of the RGS-IBG and all hold editorial roles for Geography Directions.

Suggested further readings and resources

Taylor, P.J. & O’Keefe, P. (2021) In praise of Geography as a field of study for the climate emergency. Geographical Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12404

39 ways to Save the Planet (BBC Radio 4 & BBC Sounds) – Tamsin Edwards, one of the authors of the report acts as a co-presenter.

Maslin M. (2021). How to save our Planet. The facts. London, UK: Penguin Books

RGS (2019). Financing net zero: how can investment meet the climate challenge Briefing report. Available at: https://www.rgs.org/geography/news/briefing-report-financing-net-zero/

WIRES Climate Change journal:  https://wires.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/17577799

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