College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Alumna Makes Apolito’s Most Influential People List

Alumna Makes Apolito’s Most Influential People List

Debra Roberts, Honorary UKZN Professor, Head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit at the eThekwini Municipality and South Africa’s first Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group, has been named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy for 2019 by the public servants’ networking group, Apolitical.

The list celebrates and supports people driving tangible policy change.

This inaugural list was compiled from nominations from governments, international organisations and academia, including the United Nations Development Programme, Harvard and Oxford universities, and Bloomberg. The final selection was informed by additional research and expert review.

The list features inspirational politicians, advocates, youth activists, academics and diplomats from all over the world and includes luminaries and leaders in climate action globally, including Sir David Attenborough, Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg.

Roberts was included in a segment recognising international and non-governmental organisations, and is one of only two IPCC officials on the list, the other being IPCC Chair Dr Hoesung Lee.

Roberts, a UKZN alumna, said this recognition was an important reflection onthe University and the kind of broad-ranging educational opportunities it had provided over many decades. Roberts’ PhD research at UKZN fell into both the science and policy sectors and drew her into the policy/practitioner environment.

The Westville campus is the site of the Durban office of the IPCC Working Group II (WGII) Technical Support Unit (TSU), which together with an office in Bremen, Germany, supports Roberts and Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner of Germany, who oversee the WGII contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.

Roberts’ experience and role in both the practitioner and science spaces provided the motivation for the establishment of this office, with a goal of helping to ensure that the voices of practitioners and African scientists are strengthened in this assessment cycle.

Roberts was elected to her role in the IPCC in 2015, marking the first time a local government practitioner was elected as a Working Group co-chair. Her recognition by Apolitical was a credit to the IPCC for recognising the value of people who can bridge various knowledge communities and ensure better integration between the priorities of both.

Roberts hoped that this recognition would encourage UKZN to train and nurture people capable of crossing boundaries and operating in transdisciplinary areas, adding tremendous value and influence by doing so. She also hoped it would inspire her colleagues in the Municipality, who she encouraged to use their knowledge to influence the global debate on climate policy.

Speaking from her experience at both local practice and global science levels, Roberts said the big message in climate policy now was that no-one could sit this one out.

‘You cannot delegate responsibility for climate action to your councillor, local government or a national department; everyone needs to be involved and we are either all in, and acting according to our various resources and abilities, or we don’t solve this particular problem.

‘Science is an absolutely essential part of the toolbox in dealing with the climate change challenge,’ said Roberts, ‘and there is real pressure on science to make itself more accessible, where producers of scientific knowledge ensure practitioners can access and use it to make decisions.’

The Durban Office of the WGII TSU is facing its busiest year in the current cycle with three special reports coming out, and those on land and on the oceans and cryosphere particularly involving the Durban Office. The Office is also actively planning its outreach activities in Africa to increase awareness of the IPCC and its products, and to take science to where it is needed.

The Office is supported by the Government of South Africa, represented by the Department of Environmental Affairs, with financial support from the governments of Norway, Germany and New Zealand.

UKZN, as host, provides infrastructure and financial support for related postdoctoral research.

Words: Christine Cuenod