Social Channels


  • Type

  • Topic

  • Sort

Receive a Daily or Weekly summary of the most important articles direct to your inbox, just enter your email below. By entering your email address you agree for your data to be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

Debra Roberts at the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam.
18 May 2016 7:00

The Carbon Brief Interview: Debra Roberts

Robert McSweeney


Robert McSweeney

18.05.2016 | 7:00am
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Debra Roberts

In October 2015, Dr Debra Roberts was elected as the new co-chair of Working Group II (WG2) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). WG2 is the group that examines the impacts of climate change and how to adapt to them. Having served as a lead author of the Urban Areas chapter in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Roberts will now lead WG2’s activities for the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) cycle.

In her day job, Roberts established and heads the environmental planning and climate protection department of eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa. She is Durban’s first chief resilience officer and is responsible for overseeing the development of the city’s first resilience strategy.

Carbon Brief interviewed Roberts during the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam.

CB: We’ll start with a question about being here at the Adaptation Futures Conference in Rotterdam. Do you think that climate change adaptation has had enough attention internationally? Compared to mitigation, for example?

DR: No, and I think that comes from the history of the climate change debate. I can remember even 10 years ago there was a sense we could mitigate our way out of the problem. I think it almost set up the kind of political discourse where if you spoke about adaptation, it was seen as a betrayal of the mitigation agenda and undermining of the mitigation ambition. So, I think because of that, it’s taken a secondary place. I also think because it’s an area of public good and issues that perhaps address aspects of our society like equity and so on, the debate around adaptation has also lagged – it’s not a direct relationship between potentially private enterprise and technological interventions in the mitigation debate, the funding streams are less clear. I think all of those things have conspired to put adaptation potentially in the shadows. But I think that’s changed, and I think there’s been a strong mobilisation of the last decade – particularly coming out of the vulnerable countries and vulnerable communities. I think Paris really was the cherry on the top. Two years ago, as the South African delegation, we spoke about the potential in adaptation goal. [Roberts is a member of the South African climate negotiating team, following the adaptation and Loss and Damage streams.] But it was such an aspirational goal. To have that in reality now in Article 7, I think, really seals the deal. What it does is it equalises the playing field, but it does mean we’ve got a lot of catching up to do in the adaptation space.

CB: Do you think there’s enough awareness about adaptation as a whole? For example, there’s less research published around it compared to the rest of climate science in general. Do you think that it’s suffered a little from taking a backseat to mitigation?

DR: The thing is I think we’ve got to have a multifaceted argument. Certainly, maybe in the sciences, we’ve experienced a situation where adaptation is less focused on, and I think that’s because it’s a very context-specific intervention, so it’s hard to draw up the general principles or the rule book. It’s very clear what we need to do around mitigation. Adaptation is very context-specific, and so there’s a lot of nuance and there’s a tapestry there that needs to be unraveled to understand that. Maybe in terms of research, yes, but I can tell you in my daytime job as an urban practitioner, it’s a reality. So there’s been no choice, so we’ve been having to do it, simply because the reality of the growing urban areas or vulnerable rural landscapes means that people have been adapting all the time. At the grassroots, I think there’s a very clear day-to-day integration with adaptation needs – obviously not articulated in that way, and not even articulated within the frame of climate change – but people are doing this stuff. They may not be writing about it or researching it, and I think that’s the dichotomy and dilemma that we’re also facing is that in a sense, science now has to catch up with not only policy but also the practitioners in the adaptation space.

CB: Some argue that rather than worrying about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we should just focus on adapting to climate change – how would you respond to that argument?

DR: The thing is that’s, perhaps, just too much of a reductionistic and linear piece of thought. The world is an incredibly complex place. The one thing the Paris Agreement taught us is that absolutely everyone and every issue needs to be at the table. There’s no silver bullet here – we’ve got to mix it, and that’s the point. We know very clearly from the way that the adaptation article is articulated in the Paris Agreement, there’s a very strong link back to mitigation ambition. We know that adaptation is particularly costly. It makes no good sense to down tools on mitigation and divert your limited resources in adaptation when, in fact, you get more bang for your buck if you invest in both wisely. So, you invest in mitigation to reduce your risk profile, but then you take limited resources too and what risk remains, and deal with that in a sustainable and equitable way. I think that the core is there’s no simple choice anymore. You’ve actually got to do it all, and the real difficulty in that equation is who does what, when to whom. That’s the landscape we’re now working in.

CB: What aspects of climate change do you think will be the most difficult to adapt to?

DR: Again, because impacts materialise in different spaces in different ways – depending on the geography of that space, depending on the socioeconomic profile of that space – I don’t think you can give a standard answer. But I think where we’re going to see perhaps the most friction and frisson between the human development aspiration  – as we’ve seen articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals – and the pressures that are brought to bear on that by the climate change agenda is probably going to be in the urbanisation space. Essentially, we’re going through the most rapid period of urbanisation in our species’ history. Because of that, we’re concentrating people, infrastructure, and economies in geographical spaces – many of which are high risk. They’re coastal, they’re along rivers – for obvious reasons, in terms of why they were first located there. But I think it’s going to be that set of complex impacts being brought to bear on these very complex geographical spaces where basically our key investment as a species is and trying to manage that. So using cities as a lever not only to achieve equity and to upliftment of billions poor people to create quality of life opportunities to improve well-being, but to do that in a world where the fundamentals of the climate architecture are changing and exacerbating things like heat stress, damaging infrastructure through flooding, damaging opportunities for food sovereignty and security by changing profiles of rainfall. And I think it’s that interaction of the urbanisation agenda and the climate response agenda which is the really tricky one. How do we bring those together in a really smart way that’s going to benefit across the border, not begin to isolate and create greater disparities within the world cities  – because that creates a spectre of quite difficult geopolitics going forward.

CB: The recent Paris Agreement put a renewed focus on the more-ambitious temperature limit of 1.5C. From your perspective, how feasible do you think a 1.5C limit is –  it does rely quite heavily on negative emissions technologies, such as bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS)?

DR: Again, I come back to where is your smartest and biggest opportunity to make a difference? So, if we’re going to raise our level of ambition and put 1.5C on the potential scorecard in terms of our climate action, where do you get the most bang for your buck in bending that curve? Quite frankly, you get it in the world’s cities. If we look at this urbanisation that’s going to be happening in this century, it’s quite different from the urbanisation that generated, for example, Rotterdam, where we’re sitting here today. It’s going to be a process of urbanisation that generates small, largely informal type cities and the question is, how do you put those onto a new development path so you leapfrog the carbon intensive patterns of development which have characterised the cities of the past? That for me is, if we’re able to develop that new version for urbanisation in an entirely different context and entirely different manner, which allows us to go from intensive carbon reliance in our cities to something that’s obviously low carbon climate resilient – there you stand your greatest chance of bending the curve to 1.5C. Quite frankly, without cities, you don’t get 1.5C. So the question is how do we urbanise the climate protection debate, and I think that’s one of the big challenges that the Paris Agreement has left us with.

CB: The IPCC announced recently that it will take up the UNFCCC’s request to produce a special report on 1.5C. As the newly-appointed co-chair of WG2, how do you see WG2 contributing to this?

DR: We’ve got a very egalitarian group of co-chairs. I think we’ve realised as IPCC co-chairs that all of the work done by the three working groups, including the bureau is absolutely critical to solving the climate dilemma. Obviously, 1.5C is an important challenge for all of us. Both the three working groups and the bureau all have important contributions to make, and so, in fact, the 1.5C report will be overseen scientifically by all of the working groups and with considerable input from the bureau as well in terms of modalities and so on and so forth. Our role would obviously bring the vulnerabilities and the impacts side, but that will be in the context of obviously feeding off very strongly from the works that Working Group I (WG1) will bring in anticipation of things like CMIP6 [Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6] and the new understandings in the physical science basis. And then obviously because you cannot in the real world separate out adaptation and mitigation responses, there’s a natural bleed into Working Group III (WG3). We’re part of a united whole asking the climate question, but our job obviously is to bring the impacts side of things and shine a greater light on what those might be. But I think also impacts tends to bring with it a sense of negativity. I think the opportunity of WG2 in the context of 1.5C is to bring hope – in the sense that there are levers in that impact mix like cities that if you’re smart, could turn the game around. So I’m optimistic that our working group will bring both the sense of the enormity of the challenge, but also the sense of the hope with the right kind of smart investment, right kind of governance, that we might be able to swing that bow more rapidly maybe than we might previously have thought of.

CB: Taking a bit of a step back, IPCC has a new chair, a new leadership team, and the scoping for AR6 is underway. Do you see this as a new beginning for the IPCC?

DR: Well, just a correction, we haven’t started the scoping for the sixth assessment report. We’re very busy with 1.5C, and that process is starting up. We’ll get to the main report next year. To my mind, when I talk to everyone about the IPCC, it’s got a great legacy, fantastic history, but Paris changed everything. To my mind, we’re at IPCC 2.0 – in the sense that there is now a much stronger need for science, in the sense of providing information to policymakers in a thoughtful, easy to access way to make quite tough decisions. I don’t think we should kid anyone – going forward, the world, individuals, countries, states, cities are going to have to tough decisions and science is going to play a really important role in that. So I think we’re seeing science and policy – obviously remaining discreet – but coming up cheek by jowl with one another. For me, it’s a very different arena that we find ourselves in the sixth assessment report – much greater need for science, much greater need for science to cross the full spectrum of what the world needs in terms of questions and answers.

CB: And what do you want to bring to the role of WG2 co-chair?

DR: I’m an unusual co-chair, so I’m the first local government official who’s been elected a co-chair. So I bring with me real experiences in the trenches. I think my useful role – in this very challenging space where the relevance of science is now a very important priority – is to make sure that the science we assess, that we engage in, is constantly tempered by a sense of what the real world needs. So I think I bring that voice. I think Christiana [Figueres] said [in her plenary speech] yesterday – not, perhaps, from the coalface more but from the solar panel – in order to ensure that that relevance is there, that we’re constantly keeping our eye on the ball, keeping our independence as scientists and assessors of our science, but ensuring that we’re not losing sight of the fact that the real world has very real questions, has very real needs of a very limited timeline, and that we are responsive to those kinds of calls on us.

CB: Along with 1.5C, the IPCC says there will also be special reports on the oceans and cryosphere, and food security. What do you think of these choices?

Those are choices made by member states. They’re all good choices. I’ve got a very strong service mentality about the IPCC – I see it as very important that science provides support and service to the difficult decision making that policymakers are faced with, so that’s the menu that the global policymakers have chosen. It’s a good a menu as any. There are no losers in that space. It’s not actually a special report on food security, it’s a whole range of land degradation, land use, food security – so quite a complex bundle in that space. Obviously, oceans because they’ve been neglected and it’s an important opportunity to address that. But don’t also forget that important decision that was taken in [the IPCC’s three-day meeting in] Nairobi of the fact that committed to a special report on cities for AR7  [the IPCC’s seventh assessment report], a special focus on urban in all of our products, and a scientific conference on cities in this [IPCC] cycle. So, if you look at that full range – the high ambition in that 1.5C, oceans which are 70% of the Earth’s surface, but which we don’t know enough, obviously land use is an important opportunity for intervention both around mitigation and adaptation, and then that real turnkey opportunity of the cities – we’ve got a very ambitious, but I think very bold agenda for the outputs of AR6, because you pretty much touch on all the high points in that selection.

CB: Are there any other topics that you’d like to see a special report for, perhaps, further down the line?

DR: I think there are a whole host of them. I particularly, obviously, think the special report on cities is a turnkey one. But, again, the section of the special reports and issues, those are not the prerogative of the scientists. It’s really the moment for the policymakers to identify what’s high on their agenda at that point in time. You know, what might be high on the scientific agenda may not correlate with what’s on the policy agenda at that particular time. I wouldn’t want to say what would be relevant. That’s for the policymakers to make that decision and give us those sets of guidance and instructions about how to help them there.

CB: So, tell me about you. Perhaps you could just explain your background, how you got to the positions you hold today?

DR: A biologist by training, who very rapidly got frustrated with an academic environment that wasn’t connected to the real world. So when democracy came to South Africa and the country was imbued with a sense of change, I thought this is the moment – if the country can change, I can change, too. So, in 1994, I left academia – where my research had been on urban conservation issues, how one integrates biodiversity into local cities – joined local government, and continued to work on biodiversity issues. But as our understanding of how the African city was going to work, we began the realise that the key to making the African city sustainable and resilient would be people and ecosystems, using those in new and different ways. And then, of course, with that came the realisation that climate change was going to impact on both of those twin pillars of strength that Africa had, so I got into that space – very much as they say in the trenches. Then again got frustrated – so it’s been a life of frustration with the fact that as a practitioner, the researcher would arrive in your office and would interview you for two hours and then go away and write a paper that bore no reality to what you had spoken about – and so got reengaged with the science community at that particular point. So I found myself quite stretched across a broad range of things – remaining a practitioner, involved at the policy level through being involved in the climate change negotiations up in Paris last year – and because I’ve reengaged with the science community to have a discussion informed by reality, I found myself nominated and elected as co-chair. So really, I’m involved in so many fields, I’m not sure I do any of them particularly well, but I’ve got a very broad prospectus of interest [laughs].

CB: You’ve gained much of your education and experience in Africa, but you’ve also studied and worked in the UK and the US. What similarities and differences do you see in the adaptation challenges that Africa faces, compared to those in, say, Europe and North America?

DR: It’s too simplified an answer to say “well, Africa is unique” because I don’t think there’s any place in the globalised world that remains entirely unique. But I do think the set of opportunities for Africa are different to those that might have been experienced in the global North. If you look at the developed path of the global North, that development path pursued without the full range of knowledge that we have available to us today. So, in many cases, that development path wasn’t perhaps as informed or as insightful as it needed to be. In Africa, we’re starting the beginning of our development race in many particular ways. We’ve got the advantage of accessing this broad range of knowledge. We have enormous resources available to us just in terms of space, natural resources. we’ve got the youth bulge globally, we’ve got the largest population of young people – which is where your innovation comes from. So with that knowledge, with that kind of opportunity for innovation, with that enormous resource space, and just having such a huge continent, there’s the potential there to do something really, really different. The question is, are we brave enough as Africans to pick up on that opportunity, to step off the sort of well-trodden path for a bit, to develop our own version? And certainly we can see that articulation of the new African vision – the new African renaissance discussions, and so on – all point to the fact that Africa is ready for that new vision. But it is going to require us to be self-motivated, to utilise all of these opportunities in new ways, and to be confident in ourselves as Africans to make those choices. I think we can take quite a different path. If we don’t do that, we could fall into the well-trodden path and then simply repeat the mistakes of the North, which I think would be unfortunate.

CB: In the plenary session yesterday, you spoke about an “elephant in the room” of how we get from a global agreement, such as Paris, to tackling climate change through local implementation of it. I was wondering if you could you expand on that a little?

DR: I think that the problem is because we’ve worked in central silos, institutional silos for so long, that what we tend to do is we carve up the world into neat little boxes and pursue our objectives in those. And what we fail to do – I suppose a bit like threading beads on a necklace – is to find ways to actually link those opportunities into something that is greater. So, to my mind, what is lacking, you’ve got this ambitious Paris Agreement, but no one’s visualised how you take that and actually turn it into change in the kind of city I work in. And I think in order to do that, it’s really calling on a new breed of practitioner-policymaker-researcher-scientist kind of hybrid, who’s capable of moving those discussions across that complex landscape. Maybe you won’t find all of those skills in one person, but a cohort of people who are capable of moving that discussion back and forth because both of those bookends have to keep triangulating around one another. You know, the Paris Agreement can’t remain a static beast – that’s why the NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] have to be produced every five years and be more ambitious. Those changes and reflections can’t happen outside the changes and reflections of what is happening at the local level, but how do you create that discourse? Who are the people who can move up and down that? So, to my mind, we need to be training a new breed of person in the 21st century who is capable of moving across that range of discussions. We need to create new institutions that allow that linkage to happen. So you’ve got the bizarre situation where you’ve got the Paris Agreement that comes out of the UN system, it acknowledges very strongly the role of non-party stakeholders – cities that have been mentioned in there, which is fabulous – but the UN has no logical place for local government to be part of those discussions. So you’re acknowledging that through the Lima-Paris Action Plan and other initiatives that local is important, but you’ve got no institutional linkages. You need people with a different set of skills, you need different forms of institutions to create those opportunities for those various levels to come together regularly to talk to, to coordinate, around what is happening on either side. So it’s talking to a transformed pattern of governance, which is quite difficult to talk about because many of our institutions are well set – we know them well. But I think it is going to require us to be bold and begin to shift that and change that, create more direct links. So, to my mind, it’s a bit more of a governance issue that we need to change, rather than a science issue necessarily.

CB: You mention governance and you’re a special advisor to ICLEI – a network of local governments working towards sustainability. In terms of adaptation, how do you see the role of local government fitting in with their national counterparts?

DR: I think they’re critical because they provide the implementation muscle around the adaptation agenda. It’s not to say that the adaptation agenda is solely local because obviously we need the broader framework of appropriate policy, appropriate resource direction within the national context. But, ultimately, the local level is your adaptation muscle, so that’s where you’re going to turn the tide, you’re going to bend the curve. It’s all going to be through that local action because that’s where you build your infrastructure, that’s where you engage people around behavioural change, that’s where you’re best able to measure the impact of interventions. To me, local is absolutely critical. It’s the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. It’s been very hard to draw it in. As I said, the Paris Agreement is reassuring because for the first time, I think “sub-national” is mentioned something like 32 times in the agreement, where the Kyoto protocol didn’t mention it at all. So I think there’s increasing recognition, but there’s a difference between saying something and then setting up the actual pathways that allow those opportunities to be effectively realised. Because local action, as I say, has to be supported by appropriate policy frameworks, appropriate legislative frameworks, appropriate resourcing to assist. And that comes with your international and national package, that needs to be there. Local can do a lot, but they can’t do it alone and they can’t do everything alone. So I think that’s the important thing – what are the new partnerships to support local that we need to put in place?

CB: Also in the plenary, you mentioned the importance of civil society. Can you explain what civil society is and the role you see it having in helping people adapt to climate change?

DR: In the context of the plenary, I really used it as a collective noun for everyone outside of the governmental sphere, so really embracing from the person living in an informal settlement all the way through a business leader, because I think it’s across that diversity of stakeholders that we need to see engagement. We need to see each one of those taking different levels of responsibility, but responsibilities for action. And there’s enormous power in that diversity. If you think about what we can learn for example from the resilience of some of the communities in Africa’s informal settlements all the way through to the strong leverage power that we see coming out of the big corporates – I mean obviously Bill Gates went to Paris as part of that new energy coalition – so you can see the range of activities and I think that’s what we’re saying in the Paris Agreement – this is a complex process, no silver bullet, which means no action is wasted, and in fact, we need all of those actions coordinating across the table, because what you don’t want is the activity undertaken in the informal settlement countermanded by some kind of corporate decision, which undermines that. So we’ve all got to be talking to one another, we’ve all got to be synchronising activities, making sure that there’s no maladaptation in that space. So really civil society is that missing element, because I think particularly in processes such as the climate negotiations and so on, that’s very much been an international and national level process. And, again, the role for the outside and important stakeholders has improved through time and we saw that from [the] Rio [Earth Summit] in 1992, but we still haven’t got full acknowledgement of the importance of that society. If you’re thinking about the prognosis from a population point of view by the end of the century, anywhere between 10 and 12 billion people, that’s an enormous resource to have that many individuals who can act, but you’ve got to give them access to processes – these things can’t remain discreet, agreements that are signed somewhere in New York to great fanfare and don’t impact on the lives of people in the streets. The question again, and it’s complex and it’s messy. There’s no easy way of bringing in that multitude of stakeholders, some of whom are not at the table, don’t necessarily want to be at the table at this point. How do we construct that opportunity of access and participation and responsibility in this new era that is the post-Paris era.

CB: How do you think the IPCC should account for local adaptation knowledge in its assessment reports – particularly where, perhaps, it isn’t published in formal journals?

DR: I was a lead author in the last assessment cycle, so we wrote the urban chapter. Really what we’ve done, and, in fact, we’ve just produced a new book called, “Cities on an Infinite Planet”, which has really taken case studies from cities around the world and documented those so that we can understand the nuance and complexities and so on. So I think that’s becoming a very powerful tool – that documentation of the case studies. The information does lurk there in the heads of people like myself, people that do this on a day-to-day basis and the kind of reports we write and put in our bottom drawers. Where my coordinating lead author from the last assessment cycle was very brave was he said “I simply cannot oversee the writing in an urban chapter without someone who’s got real experience with cities in the room.” Again, it comes back to that access – that information may not be directly available in the peer-reviewed literature, but if you got the people who are moving and brokering the discussions between, you can get access to that information. The grey literature is there, we have a good protocol in the IPCC for drawing in the grey literature, but there are mechanisms if you request these diverse communities of pulling some of that grey literature out in the more formal literature, and as I say, this recent book, which was produced by the urban authors of AR5, saying there’s so much more out there that hasn’t been documented – we can begin that process of pulling that information out, but it requires directed and concerted action to do that because we understand the importance of it. I think this new opportunity, for example, of the science conference on cities [announced by the IPCC at the Nairobi meeting] can be precisely that because cities are one of the spaces where there’s so little time to write. Local government officials must easily learn from talking to one another rather than reading things. I think that scientific conference can help give us a structure, it can give us the kind of architecture and roadmap that might allow us to access and consolidate that in a more ordered way before AR7. So I think there are the opportunities but they require us to do something a little different in order to access and recognise that important source of knowledge.

CB: On a similar note, in the plenaries for AR5, there was a graphic which was a map of climate impacts across the world, and it was changed between the WG2 report and the synthesis report. It was after some complaints from developing countries that there was a bit of a bias towards developed nations because the bulk of published studies were about impacts in those nations, so it look like they were going to fare worse. I was wondering how do you think you can kind of avoid that sort of thing happening in AR6?

DR: Again, I think that’s probably an important role for the co-chairs from the global south. Africa was particularly badly affected in the sense that our literature base is smaller than most. So there’s a very strong intent in this assessment cycle to change that. The first sign we’ve seen of that it we’re looking to resource the global south co-chairs more than we have in the past, so we’ll have smaller but our own elements of the technical support units so that there’s more support to the co-chairs. That hopefully will allow us to reach out more effectively into our regions to gather the literature because often it’s not a case of the literature not being there, it’s just potentially in a different language or the networks of communication are not well-developed enough. I think there’s a very real challenge for the co-chairs from the global south to reach out to access what is there and to begin building and supporting those particular networks. And in fact, there have been decisions now, I think at the recent AMCEN meeting [The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment] for Africa to begin to build the kind of cohesive networks of researchers who can begin to communicate. As I say, I think that’s probably one of the tasks to the co-chairs of the global south to encourage that outreach to help build the networks to ensure that literature where it exists comes in – and to be supportive of providing access of scientists into the world of the IPCC just by communicating out what’s happening. As a lead author myself on the last assessment cycle, I had no idea behind the complex machinations of the IPCC because it’s not something that’s broadly shared in the community, and I think we can do a lot more about demystifying what the IPCC is and what the opportunities are. And then obviously in our selection of authors – to be very sensitive to the fact that we need to be prioritising authors from the global south – and gender sensitive, to try and balance the equation a bit more.

CB: The new IPCC chair, Hoesung Lee, has said that he wants a solutions focus for the next IPCC report. Do you think there has been too much focus on problems rather than solutions?

DR: You know, the thing is I think that they’re interrelated. How do you formulate your solutions unless you have a really good understanding of the problems? And I think that’s what assessments one through to five have given us. They’ve given us a very comprehensive overview of what the challenges are. They’ve begun to shine a light into where some of the real opportunities lie for us, but I think, again in a post-Paris world, that the sixth assessment report probably needs to slide along that scale – to say “OK, with that knowledge, let’s really focus on that solution space”. So I don’t think it’s a case of the prior assessments being too problem-focused, they needed to do that, they’ve give us that great depth of understanding. We can now use that hopefully to begin a solutions discourse and give that an equivalent depth, drawing off that profound knowledge base, which I think is important.

CB: With the physical science from WGI now well-established, do you think the emphasis is shifting to understanding the impacts and adaptation in the IPCC?

DR: I think we almost saw that in AR5. I think you began to see a shift in focus now that we’ve understood the geography of the problem, the next question is the “So what?” question – what does it mean for me? What do I do about this? I think – again, given the emphasis in Paris, which is around greater ambition, finding ways of cooperatively working together to solutions – there’s going to be a greater emphasis on understanding how we tackle some of these thorny issues. It’s just a natural progression, I think. I think that really started in AR5, but we are on the wave of what Paris has given us as a legacy, or going to see greater engagement with that solution space. Because that’s what countries want now they know they got to act, they know they got to find solutions.

CB: The IPCC has said that it will improve its communication in the future – they used the phrase “nimble and responsive”. How can you see the IPCC becoming more nimble and responsive to the media? What would you like to see it do?

DR: We had a meeting in Oslo at the beginning of this year to delve into some of the aspects of how we can improve communication. Obviously, the new communication technologies create a whole host of potential opportunities – the fact that we’ve got young people at this conference running around and putting everything on Periscope [laughs] so we can see everything in time as it happens I think is part of that. But it’s not only the mechanism of outreach, but the messages that you’re bringing in, how you bring those message. To me it’s important to understand, for example, in Oslo, we had some very interesting input about how we respond as humans psychologically to the messaging of climate change, and I think we need to understand those aspects of being human and how we receive these messages because I think we focus, perhaps, too much on the technology and not thinking about the receiving technology which is ourselves as humans. So I think we almost need to humanise the message, understand what it means to the individual person who’s receiving it. Once we understand that, you get better cues around how to deliver it. I also think it comes back to the access point that I made before. You really do want broader input into the debate, so while we do have our standard processes – of scoping reports and moving through to approvals and those are all good processes that we need to sustain – how do we get a broader range of voices into that mix, contributing to defining the geography of interest? I think that’s going to be where the real challenge is is how do you use the fairly small infrastructure that the IPCC has available to it to do that much broader outreach? And there again we’re going to have to look to new and innovative partnerships, which we may not have considered previously, to draw into that mix. There are an increasing number of scientists who are interested in the whole idea of engagement – if we look at the whole Future Earth initiative, really a reconfiguring of global environmental change science around this idea of co-design and co-production of engaging. So that debate is happening, there are partners out there that we can begin to work with and link with to begin to draw in. Now I don’t have a clear prospectus of how we will achieve it yet, that’s something that we’ve still got to work on. We’ve been very focused on just getting ourselves up and running. But those are debates I feel are important – how do we broaden the discussion? How do we increase access of different voices so that we take those all on board when we make our final assessments and evaluations?

CB: Would you like to see the IPCC work with more kind of communications specialists in how it presents its reports and then disseminates them?

Again, that was obviously something that we discussed in Oslo. Those were the kind of skills we need access to. This is a world where, it’s a world of ideas, it’s a world of free flowing information and communication – both as ideas and information have become critical. It’s a specialist skill, so we’re not going to expect that specialist skill to be deeply embodied in a climate modeller. So I think it is another skills base that is necessary that we need to pull onboard. But I think there’s a whole range of those new types of skills – as I say, just purely understanding the way humans receive messages, that’s a whole new body of research that we’ve got to draw on board. So, yes, of course, you’ve got to have the killer graphic, but what happens when that killer graphic goes through my visual sensor and I respond to it as a human? We’ve also got to understand that value chain of communication. So I not only want the great comms people to be accessible to us – you know the people who are going to produce the killer graphics – but I want us to be reflecting in our assessments on that science of communication, on that science of understanding, because that’s really going to be the key. At the end of the day, we only bend that curve if you and I have an intention to change the way we live in this city, whatever city we live in, if we change our aspirations. So the question is, what impacts us? I think there’s a whole body of science as well around that that we need to start looking at and start drawing into our assessments.

CB: And, finally, what would you like to see the IPCC do more of – or potentially less of – in the future?

DR: Well, more of! Can we do more? [laughs] The thing is I think we’ve got such a full and ambitious sixth assessment cycle that I would hesitate to say that we need to do more of anything [laughs], because I think we’re overcommitted in many ways with the resources that we have. But I would like to see more of outreach and communication, so less inward focus, more outward focus – and I think that’s in line with the vision of our chair. I would like to see more acknowledgement of a service culture in IPCC, of understanding our very important, discreet, independent role, but the fact that we are servicing massive global needs now. I think that may require a reconfiguration of how we see ourselves and interact with the world.

CB: Can you just explain what you mean by service culture?

DR: Well, just seeing science as not science for science sake, that’s not to say that science for science sake is in any way bad – it’s great – but that science has a real role in the 21st century. The luxury of not connecting with the real world is diminishing because the real world is crowding us all out, whatever profession we’re in just simply because human need is escalating, resources are diminishing, the rate of change – societally, politically, economically – is becoming so fundamental that you really need all people will all tools at the table, and science is one of the most profound tools that we have. I think it was in the opening plenary, one of our hosts indicated that a lot of the solutions we will put on the table will come out of science and innovation, so science is a critical solution-giver. And recontextualising our science and ourselves as someone giving something into society I think is important understanding of who we are. Doing less of? I would like to see less pages in the assessment report. You know, when the four volumes of the fifth assessment report arrived in a box, I couldn’t even lift it onto my desk in the office [laughs]. And so I think we need less pages – more communication, a greater service focus, less pages [laughs].

CB: Great, brilliant, thank you very much. That’s all my questions.

DR: OK, excellent.

Main image: Debra Roberts at the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam.

This interview was conducted by Robert McSweeney on Wednesday 11th May 2016, mid-way through the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam.

Sharelines from this story
  • The Carbon Brief Interview: Debra Roberts

Expert analysis direct to your inbox.

Your data will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.