Honorary Professor in the School of Life Sciences Debra Roberts has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Twente (UT) in The Netherlands at a graduation ceremony that celebrated the Dutch institution’s 60th anniversary.
Roberts was one of four honorary graduands, receiving a Doctor honoris causa for their contributions to science and society. She was recognised for her eminent scientific work on climate risk management, leadership in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and for connecting global change risk to local communities.
Roberts completed her PhD in urban biogeography at the then University of Natal (now UKZN), looking at the interface of science and policy in the design of an open space network to conserve Durban’s globally significant biodiversity.
She is head of the eThekwini Municipality’s Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit and Durban’s first Chief Resilience Officer. In 2015, she was elected Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II (WGII), working with Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner, and was the first local government practitioner to hold this role. In 2018, a WGII Technical Support Unit (TSU) was launched at UKZN to support Roberts’ work.
UT academics who promoted Roberts’ recognition lauded her efforts in looking for solutions to the global problem of climate change as it plays out in local communities in Durban, and bridging the gap between high level scientific knowledge and people’s lived experience. The societal aspect of Roberts’ work was identified as aligning with the goals of UT in terms of heightening resilience and focusing on sustainability and climate change.
‘Congratulations to this special woman of character with multidimensional and impactful skills for both academia and the policy making sphere of life; we are proud of you,’ said Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Professor Albert Modi.
Under her co-leadership and with support from the Bremen and Durban offices of the IPCC WGII TSU, WGII published the IPCC Special Report on Ocean and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate in 2019, contributed to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and Special report on Climate Change and Land, and in 2022, published its seminal Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.
Roberts has been named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy and received the AfriCAN Climate Research Award in 2014, has sat on various international advisory bodies focused on climate change issues in cities, and advised the Global Commission on Adaptation, United Cities and Local Governments and the United Nations Secretary General’s 2019 Climate Summit. She was also a member of the South African United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiating team.
Her publications focus on urban issues including biodiversity planning, environmental management, sustainable development, resilience and climate change adaptation. She emphasises the issue of informality as a key resilience challenge for African cities.
During her address at UT’s Dies Natalis celebration, Roberts quoted the African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’ and said her progress since her childhood in Zimbabwe would not have been possible without the support of her parents, remarkable teachers including Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences of the former University of Natal John Poynton, her local government colleagues in the eThekwini Municipality, and her wife, Rosanna.
Roberts spoke about the focus of her career over more than three decades being the environmental challenges and opportunities presented by urban areas.
‘While I am personally very honoured by this award, the recognition is most significant because it acknowledges and makes visible a community of people who often remain entirely invisible: those who work at the interface of science, policy and practice,’ she said.
She called the award a visible acknowledgement of the work of these “bridge-builders”, and praised UT’s progressiveness in prioritising issues for the 21st century to create a safer, more sustainable and equitable world and maintain a healthy planet for future generations.
She thanked UT for the warm welcome and anticipated a long association with the university and its diverse community, valuing its approach of bringing thought and action together.
Words: Christine Cuénod