Working in the twilight zone

| Michaela Nesvarova

Debra Roberts (1961) could be described in many ways. She is an influential figure in the field of climate change adaptation, a government official in South Africa and one of the Co-Chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); but what truly illustrates the person she is, is her reaction to receiving the honorary doctorate at the UT. ‘This honorary degree should go to my parents.’

Photo by: Tilanie Grote

Her parents came from very poor background, but invested everything in educating their daughters, stresses Roberts. ‘They took on society against all odds. Only because of that I’m here. It all started with two people who understood the power of education.’

This statement becomes even more profound once you know that Debra Roberts’ father died only a few days before this interview. You would never guess talking to her, though. She beams with energy and speaks with passion, she smiles the brightest smile into the laptop camera, sitting in her home in Durban. Her zeal positively hides the fact that her home city was subject to violent civil unrest recently, that gunshots kept her up at night and that South Africa is currently in the grip of national blackouts. ‘There have been better days in my life,’ she says. ‘But it is important to value each day.’

Practical scientist

Explaining what Debra Roberts does for a living can be tricky, as she essentially has (more than) two full-time jobs. ‘I primarily identify myself as someone who is passionate about science,’ she says. ‘You could say I’m a very practical scientist, I use science to make day-to-day decisions about the present and the future of an African city. I’m a local government practitioner, something I’ve been doing since the democratic transition in South Africa in 1994. I’m also involved globally in the world of science assessment, most recently through my work at IPCC. I’m a scientist working in a variety of different spaces, trying to improve the world we live in, especially the cities we live in.’

‘Debra’s work is very special,’ says her honorary promotor Maarten van Aalst, UT professor of Spatial resilience for Disasters Risk Reduction at ITC Faculty. ‘She serves as the interface between science, policy and practice. As IPCC co-chair, she is not only responsible for bringing together all the scientific knowledge on climate change, she has also been facing the challenges caused by climate change in practice – as the Chief Resilience Officer in Durban. She embodies the representative role of science and the fact that dealing with climate change cannot happen in science as ivory tower. To tackle it, we need deep links with practice and Debra is one of those links. People like her, people bridging science and practice, are rare. In science, the path of publishing in top journals is still more valued. But making a link between science, practice and policy - that is something that needs to be celebrated and why I nominated her for the honorary degree.’

‘The problem of a person who works as a bridge between the two worlds is that you are never really accepted in either'

This nomination was a surprise for Roberts. ‘The problem of a person who works as a bridge between the two worlds is that you are never really accepted in either,’ she says. ‘To my policy maker colleagues, I’m way too academic. To my scientific colleagues, I’m too practical and policy oriented. So this is a not a comfortable position to be in. Having this type of acknowledgement, particularly from an academic institution, is extremely empowering. It’s a huge honour for me and a validation for so many of us who hold these bridging roles.’

debra roberts in a nutshell

  • 2016 - present  Head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit in eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa).
  • 2015 She co-leads Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which focuses on impacts,  adaptation and vulnerability. She describes IPCC as ‘an enormous public service organization set up to provide policy makers with objective source of information on climate change, helping them see what science says about its effects, what causes it and how they can respond.’
  • 1994 - 2016   Established (1994) and heads the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department of eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa). Core responsibilities include overseeing local level biodiversity and climate adaptation planning and developing the city’s first resilience strategy. 
  • 2013 Appointed as Durban’s first Chief Resilience Officer and responsible for overseeing the development of the city’s first Resilience Strategy.  She was previously a negotiator for South Africa under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and has advised a number of international organisations on climate change adaptation related issues.
  • 1991 - 1993 Lecturer and researcher at the (then) University of Natal, Durban, South Africa in the departments of Biological  Sciences and Geographical and Environmental Sciences.
  • 1983  B.Sc Hons, (Terrestrial Ecology and Biogeography) University of Natal (Cum laude).
  • 1982  B.Sc. (Environmental Biology, Cell Biology, Organic Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry) University of Natal.

Debra Roberts was born on 13 January 1961 in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She has been together for 25 years with her partner Rosanna. Roberts has been named one of the 100 most influential people worldwide in climate policy. She has received several awards for her work including the AfriCan Climate Research Award.

Love for nature

The journey to this rather unorthodox career began in the middle of the African savannah. Roberts was born and raised in Rhodesia, the current Zimbabwe, in what she describes as ‘a very conservative society’.  ‘Girls and girls’ education were not a priority. My grandmother got married at 16, she bore seven children herself, she had no education to speak of. In fact, she was horrified when she found out I was going to a university, the first woman in the family to do so. She thought this would ruin my life, because women were brought up to get married and have children. Girls were not expected to go to school, but my parents made the incredibly difficult choice of making sure that my sister and I got educated. My father never even had shoes to go to school, but he realized the power of education and educating a girl against the odds. This decision has fundamentally changed my life. There would be no career to speak of without it.’

'I was the kid who kept caterpillars in a shoebox in her room'

Even before entering a classroom, Debra Roberts instinctively knew what she wanted do. Being a child, she didn’t know the term, yet she knew that she wanted to study biology. ‘My love for science and particularly natural sciences came from my childhood. I think you learn the love for nature from the soles of your feet upward and I had the privilege of growing up in the depths of nature. I was the kid who kept caterpillars in a shoebox in her room. I was fascinated by the natural world. There was never a question in my mind.’

From savannah to a city

A turning point came when the young scientist was pursuing a biology degree in Durban. During a field trip to a farm run by a progressive farmer, who was doing a lot of work on restoring the natural elements, she realized that she didn’t want to spend her life in a laboratory. She wanted to protect natural ecosystems instead. ‘My PhD focused on conservation in urban environments,’ she says. ‘Cities in South Africa are located in biodiversity hotspots. When people think of natural conservation, they tend to think of larger landscapes like the Amazon or Serengeti, but ignore the smaller fragmented natural landscapes. I think we need to focus on those more, because of the nature of our species. Human activities have impacted most natural systems, so understanding the dynamics of fragmented ecosystems and how to manage and restore them is a key challenge for the 21st Century. Cities are our greatest inventions and, if we are to find solutions to global challenges, most of the work will take place in cities or involve cities.’ 

Durban

Debra Roberts has dedicated her life to protection of urban areas, and to Durban in particular. ‘I came to Durban in 1979 for university and basically never left. You can’t save the world by yourself, but you can find a space in the world that you can defend and defend it. Durban became that space for me. It is a personal commitment to a personal geography.’

This sense of responsibility towards the city has never wavered, even though the South African metropolis is certainly a challenging place to live and work. On top of ongoing issues such as floods, draughts, increasing temperatures, rising poverty and nearly 600 informal settlements, Durban has experienced a lot of violent civil unrest recently. ‘People are tense and worried about the future,’ describes Roberts. ‘Lots of people have lost jobs, shopping centres were burned down, infrastructure destroyed. A warehouse of toxic chemicals burned down only half a kilometre away from here. We could hear gunshots through the nights, the helicopters ahead as the army came in, the huge fire on the horizon. Streets were full of armed people. It was frightening.’

'Being in government has really tested my metal’

As the city’s Chief Resilience Officer, the honorary doctor has had to deal with all the above and more. A life miles away from the ‘tame’ world of academia she originally thought she’d stay in. ‘My PhD was a very formative moment for me as I was privileged to work with local government officials. When you get down the trenches in a city, you see the complexity and real challenges people face. I realized that life in academia was not for me, because the university at the time didn’t value applied research as much as I’d like them to. I wanted to offer something more concrete to the world. When I was questioning what to do with my life, South Africa moved to democracy and a position in local government opened up and that was it. All the signs were there. I thought I’d leave government when the learning curve has plateaued, but let me tell you! It is like a furnace that bends you, moulds you and twists you into a different shape. Being in government has really tested my metal.’

lecture at the ut

Before Debra Roberts receives her honorary doctorate at the UT during the Dies Natalis this week, she will also give a lunchtime lecture on Thursday 19 May in the Waaier (room 3) between 12.30 and 13.30. 

In-between world

On top of being ‘bent into shape’ in Durban, Debra Roberts fulfils another significant role on a global level - as one of the Co-Chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. In fact, she is the very first practitioner to be an IPCC Co-Chair. ‘There are very few practitioners who make it to IPCC,’ she says. ‘Practitioners have told me that they take strength from seeing someone like them in an influential position. It is also valuable for science to encounter different knowledge. As a policy maker, I don’t need to theorize on what policy makers need, I know what I need. The same for science. I’m living in this in-between world, in this twilight zone, between science and policy.’

This is a unique position to be in and, as such, Roberts tries to serve as a role model. ‘I’m aware of how difficult it was for me to not be able to look to someone else. Making unorthodox career choices is tough. When I was leaving academia, my academic colleagues were telling me that I was destroying my career, that it was a terrible decision. I had the same experience in policy when I became involved in science again. None of these decisions are easy. They are deeply traumatic and there was never anyone I could turn to, who would say: it is fine to be in the twilight zone.’

Genuine motivation

Her IPCC colleague and promotor Maarten van Aalst definitely sees Debra Roberts as an inspiring figure. ‘She is a wonderful person. She is grounded, convincing and inspirational. She is an important role model. Having a female leader in a field which has been traditionally dominated by old white men, a female leader from a developing country nonetheless, is a sign of a new era. She is an example to me. The way she talks about science and the transformation we need, is something I really appreciate and try to learn from. And she doesn’t do it for her own greater glory. Her motivation is very genuine.’

 'I know exactly why I do what I do'

It is hard to argue with those words. Even though her work schedule doesn’t usually allow her to sleep more than five hours a night or to take holidays, Debra Roberts doesn’t understand the question of where she gets the energy. ‘Energy is not the problem, it’s the time,’ she replies. ‘How do you find the time in 24 hour day for two 24 hour jobs? You become a juggler. The pandemic has been a blessing in that regard, because I could spend more time at home with my father and with my amazing partner of 25 years, Rosanna. She has been an incredible support. Not everyone is as patient. I work full-time all the time. It is a time management issue and it gets really tough at times, but I’ve always had the sense of commitment. I know exactly why I do what I do. I’m not some kind of martyr. It is an enormous privilege. You only get one life. I want to make sure that when I get to my last moment, I know I’ve done as much as I humanly could with the time I was given.’