/ 8 March 2023

Durban’s Debra Roberts: first African woman to be elected IPCC Co-Chair

Debra Roberts Ipcc
Debra Roberts is the acting head of the sustainable and resilient city initiatives unit at the eThekwini municipality and its chief resilience officer. She is also a co-chair of the Working Group II of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body responsible for climate science. (YANN COATSALIOU / AFP)

It’s Friday and Debra Roberts’ last meeting only ended at 1am. This is a typical day for the climate scientist, who is learning that she “needs 48 hour days”. She has to find the time to juggle two 24-hour jobs. 

Roberts is the acting head of the sustainable and resilient city initiatives unit at the eThekwini municipality and its chief resilience officer. She is also a co-chair of the Working Group II of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body responsible for climate science. 

“Either I am slowing down, or the work is increasing. I like to think that the work is increasing because I can’t conceive that I’m slowing down,” she said, explaining that her work schedule leaves room for only five hours of sleep a night.

This week, she left for Switzerland for the approval of the IPCC’s final report in its sixth assessment report: the Synthesis Report, which will be released on 20 March. It will cover the current status of, and trends in, climate change, near-term responses from 2030 to 2040 and long-term climate and development impacts. 

‘Education the key to freedom’

Roberts, who describes herself as a “very practical scientist”, grew up “a funny little suburb”, which was a handful of houses in the middle of the bush near Bulawayo in former Rhodesia, where her love for science, particularly natural sciences, was cultivated. 

“We were literally surrounded by the dryland savannahs so it was just years and years of unstructured play in nature. I think that just kind of gets into your DNA … you can’t escape your future.”

Her parents came from impoverished backgrounds. “Both my mom and dad grew up with this intense vision that education was the way you dealt with these challenges — it was the freedom that would allow you to make other choices.” 

She relays how, in standard three she sat up with her father past midnight, because she couldn’t figure out how long division worked. “And he wasn’t going to leave my bedroom until I knew how to do long division … It’s fine if you’ve got kids who are Einsteins, who find their own way, but people who are just sort of average, it’s really those 10 000 hours you’ve got to put in to excel and my family really understood that.” 

Joining local government

At the former University of Natal, Roberts completed her PhD in urban biogeography, which focused on conservation in urban environments and saw her trundling across the wilds of the Durban area, in work supported by local government officials.

She spent “three quite frustrating years” in academia because at the time, “they didn’t see the value of more applied sciences and the need to have connection to the real world”. In 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, the post of environmental manager in local government was advertised. “I remember my academic colleagues giving me this prognosis of the death of science in my life and that it would be the end of my academic career. 

“So this sense … that science dies at the boundary of a university, that science somehow doesn’t have a real life in the real world, I thought, no, that’s insane. I knew that not to be true by virtue of my own research,” Roberts said. 

She joined local government.

‘In the twilight zone’

Roberts ended up in this boundary zone working as a practitioner in the policy space, using science to inform decision-making. 

“The moment you become a boundary person, the moment you work between worlds, neither world ever trusts you entirely,” Roberts says. “I’m in the twilight zone. It’s become better, but it kind of still remains where the policy people see you as too scientific and the scientists see you as too political but in a way that at least keeps them interested in what you’re doing.”

She is the first practitioner to become an IPCC co-chair. “When I moved more into the academic space with the IPCC, my colleagues also cautioned me that that move may not benefit my practitioner career [but] I think I’ve shown that you can be a strong boundary person. You can be a good scientist; you can be a good practitioner. The two are not mutually exclusive and you can really drive change.”

In 2014, the AfriCAN Climate Consortium awarded Roberts, an honorary professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, their AfriCAN Climate Research Award, while in 2019 she was named one of the 100 most influential people worldwide in climate policy.

‘Be through the door first’

Among her career challenges, Roberts cites how there was “scepticism” in her early research when she was doing ecology-based fieldwork because this was always deemed to be a man’s field — women would do lab-based science. 

“When I joined local government it was largely male-dominated, I can remember some of my early meetings; they became largely speechless; they didn’t know what to do with this female manager, because they never had one before.” 

Becoming the first local government practitioner to be an IPCC co-chair has come with difficulties too. “This is because I come from a different knowledge community, so the others are full-time research scientists and so working in a global assessment is much easier for them. They spend their lives writing the literature and reading the literature. I don’t. So, I found that I had to work really hard to keep alongside and play an equal role with them.” 

And being a woman from the Global South, Your capabilities are stereotyped by some, not all. “I may come from a slightly different environment but my point is that if you give me a chance, because I work really hard, I can probably fill whatever gaps I have. And I think I’ve shown my value as someone with a slightly different voice so it’s been challenging but I think I’ve earned the respect of my IPCC colleagues through the work that I have done.”

‘Suboptimal future’

Her “passion for Durban” comes from that realisation that being a person with a limited lifespan, “I wasn’t going to be able to save the world, but I was empowered by the philosophy of the deep ecologists to say well, choose a spot,” Roberts said. “I had spent so much time in Durban’s open spaces that you become linked to them. Again it comes back to that continuity of perseverance that my parents taught me.”

Cities, where people, power, politics and the economy are concentrated, are key to finding solutions to global problems. For her, Durban is the “ideal test tube” because it’s a microcosm of the world’s challenges.

“Durban is really important in the context of Africa because, unlike Johannesburg and Cape Town, it really does have a very African element to it in the sense that it’s got the challenges of under-development, with just under 600 informal settlements. 

“We’ve got traditional leadership responsible for managing about 40% of our metropolitan land … and yet, it’s got challenges of the Global North as well. If you can get it right in Durban you can probably get it right anywhere.” 

For Roberts, personal realisation, practice and science tell her that a suboptimal future lies ahead for Earth. “We’ve got real challenges and what Durban is living through is what the majority of us are going to live through probably for the remainder of this century — a deeply suboptimal world and we must try to find new ways of responding to that.

 “Things like the [July 2021] civil unrest, the [2022] floods, the other challenges that we face, means that none of the existing rulebooks apply in a city such as Durban … We’re at that stage of saying this is the new normal, we’ve probably got there sooner than most and now what do we do about it?”

Real challenges

If everyone worked together to transform society towards a low-carbon and equitable future, Roberts would be delighted.

“What I see in the science and what I know of practice, given current conditions locally, nationally and internationally, that’s very unlikely, which means for example, we’re going to stand a really good chance of exceeding 1.5°C and we know from our part of the world that we’re heating twice as fast as everyone else, so there are real challenges. 

“If we don’t make some of these huge transformative changes, if we do end up in this world where we cross some of these key goals we’ve set for ourselves, 1.5°C, 2°C … you can’t give up … Even in a suboptimal world we all have to be working damn hard to keep our options open.” 

This suboptimal world is one where humanity shoots to 1.5°C and potentially overshoots to 2°C of global warming. “If you look at the IPCC’s Working Group III report, they say with current policies we’re heading towards 3.2°C, so the suboptimal world is a world where climate change exceeds the kind of guardrails we’ve set ourselves in policy with all the implications that brings, obviously more extreme and more frequent climate and weather events, which creates loss of lives, loss of infrastructure, sets back development and impacts on livelihoods.”

It’s also about the loss of biodiversity. “We’ve got to curtail the impact we have on ecosystems that provide ecosystem services that are absolutely fundamental to supporting our lives — the water we drink and the air we breathe — but it’s also suboptimal where we still allow injustice and inequity to prevail. A world where you’ve got the super rich and the extremely poor, people who can’t meet basic needs, who don’t live healthy and safe lives.” 

Humanity is going to have to think carefully about what that means. And even in that world, still find opportunities to drive change wherever they can. That is the “playbook of the future”, Roberts says.

Dealing with this suboptimal world will be tough and involve hard work. “In this rapidly changing landscape that we’re working in, that’s the opportunity of the suboptimal world, it means everyone will have a role. 

“It has the potential to foster much greater societal cohesion as we acknowledge that one knowledge is not superior to the other knowledge, the indigenous knowledge holder is as valuable as the Nobel prize winning scientist and that for me is the opportunity … because it forces us to to come together and use every tool that we have to deal with the challenges.”

This in itself may be a transformative process of “banding us together”, in a way perhaps that easier choices may not have allowed. “It’s grim but it’s certainly what gets me up every morning because I know I’ve got to keep at it.”