Our Burning Planet


South African scientist Debra Roberts nominated to head world expert body on climate crisis

South African scientist Debra Roberts nominated to head world expert body on climate crisis
Professor Debra Roberts is in line to lead the world’s top scientific advisory panel on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Photo: Supplied)

If Roberts wins the majority vote in Nairobi, she will become the first woman and first person from Africa to lead the IPCC.

Veteran Durban climate change researcher Professor Debra Roberts has been named among four experts nominated to lead the world’s top scientific advisory panel on climate change.

Roberts – a graduate of the former University of Natal who established the first dedicated environment department for the City of eThekwini (Durban) in 1994 – has been formally endorsed by Cabinet as South Africa’s candidate to chair the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC is a panel of experts set up in 1988 to provide government policymakers with regular scientific assessments on the latest state of knowledge about climate change.

The key chair position is being contested by three other candidates: Dr Thelma Krug of Brazil, Professor Jim Skea of the UK and Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of Belgium.

With more than 30 years’ experience as an academic researcher and senior municipal planning official, Roberts previously served as a member of the South African negotiating team at several global climate change meetings. She is also the current co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

Lending his endorsement, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that if Roberts wins the majority vote at a meeting in the Kenyan capital Nairobi between 24 and 28 July, she will become the first woman and first person from Africa to lead the IPCC.

During its 35-year history, only four people have chaired the global science advisory panel: Bert Bolin (Sweden) Robert Watson (UK), Rajendra Pachauri (India) and the current chair, Hoesung Lee (South Korea).

Ramaphosa said Roberts was known in South Africa and in international forums as a “natural bridge-builder” and was therefore ideally suited to bring together the Global South and the Global North at a critical time. 

“Governments can expect her to help ensure a balanced, inclusive and comprehensive assessment of the science, which is equitably focused on the priorities of all countries.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: The need for action on the climate crisis is more urgent than previously assessed – IPCC

Serving in a voluntary capacity, members of the IPCC provide comprehensive scientific advice to nearly 200 member nations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the global treaty established in 1992 to negotiate measures to avoid “dangerous human interference with the climate system”.

More than three decades later, however, the UNFCCC climate treaty system has been dismissed as a failure by several critics who point to the steady rise in global temperature, soaring greenhouse gas emissions and increasingly frequent severe weather events.

Beyond the ‘why’ and the ‘what’

Roberts readily admits that global action to arrest climate change at the UNFCCC biennial negotiations has been woefully slow.

“We’ve known about climate change since 1822,” she notes in reference to the early work of French scientist Joseph Fourier in describing the atmosphere’s heat-trapping “greenhouse effect”. By 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius had also developed the theory that modern industry’s burning of fossil fuels created carbon dioxide emissions that would heat up the Earth.

“We have been very clear that what we (society and governments) have done so far is inadequate,” says Roberts, “but the IPCC has very clearly indicated the sense of urgency that is needed to tackle this problem… We have not hidden from that.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Supercomputer peers into SA’s climate future — and paints a frightening picture

She also draws a clear distinction between the work of the IPCC (as an advisory body) and the political negotiation process by UNFCCC member nations.

Moving the needle on greenhouse gas emissions, she believes, will only be achieved once there is “massive political will” and a “whole-of-society approach” to tackling the global crisis.

In his endorsement, President Cyril Ramaphosa says Roberts stands to become the first woman and first person from Africa to lead the IPCC.

“If past (panel) assessments have looked at the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of climate change, now we have an urgent need to provide evidence for the ‘how’,” she states.

“Policymakers need detailed, rigorous and practical answers on how we mitigate and adapt to climate change, by when, where and by who.”

“Governments are faced with the very real need to understand the implications of both climate change variability and climate change in their region in the next five years, not only the impact of climate change over the next century – and they need evidence on what they can do this year to protect their citizens and improve their way of life.”

‘Stick to the science’

Yet, in response to increasing calls from civil society for IPCC scientists to adopt a more activist approach to the climate crisis, Roberts is emphatic that panel members have to “stick to the science” to maintain their neutrality and integrity.

“To protect the core values of the IPCC we need to stay independent of politics and other pressures and uphold our scientific integrity,” she insists.

Adding his support to her nomination, Professor Guy Midgley, head of Stellenbosch University’s School for Climate Change, said: “I think Debra provides strong representation for the real concerns of people as they are affected by climate change, and has a very good eye for the scientific evidence relating to both challenges and the solutions across all sectors.

“She has provided calm, principled and forthright leadership in the IPCC process up to now.”

Professor Patrick Bond, a political ecologist and director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change, was less enthusiastic about her nomination.

Bond argues that eThekwini’s climate mitigation and adaptation policies have placed too much emphasis on “green” issues such as maintaining the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System and largely ignored community efforts to reduce toxic air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by large industries.

“If Durban is given further IPCC recognition through the appointment of a leading municipal official to run the body, it just goes to show how out of touch international climate managerialism is with reality – just as the IPCC is regularly criticised for its intrinsic conservativism when periodically offering climate-damage projections that are far too optimistic. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Raymond Auerbach says:

    Debra Roberts has been a clear voice for sustainable policy through several decades, understanding the need to combine human issues in dealing with poverty with the pressing environmental issues which make poverty even more unbearable. As Africans, we are proud of your nomination, Debra, and are convinced you will be elected.

  • Good luck Debra, Hope you make it – you deserve it .
    Malcolm Mitchell

  • steve woodhall says:

    I really hope Debra Roberts is elected as IPCC Chair. I live in Durban and despite its problems with corruption and tribal politics we are fortunate to have great biodiversity here. That’s largely thanks to the D’MOSS system she was instrumental in setting up. Despite being starved of funds by our myopic municipality our Biodiversity Management department is doing a great job. I met her at a Conservancy presentation just after we moved here and was deeply impressed with her ideas and commitment. To see her implementing them on a world scale gives me a sense of hope that maybe our species does have a future after all. I see the effects of D’MOSS in my rewilded forest garden every day.

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