A-conversation-with-IPCC-AR6-WG2-Co-Chair-Dr-Debra-Roberts cover photo

A Conversation with Dr Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC AR6 WGII

By Debra Roberts 24 May, 2022

What does 'water' mean to the Co-Chair of IPCC WGII? Plus find out why she thinks water can be the rallying point for climate leadership, how cities can play a catalytic role and more as part the SIWW 2022 Water Leaders Interview Series that CWR conducted

A-conversation-with-IPCC-AR6-WG2-Co-Chair-Dr-Debra-Roberts cover photo
To Dr Roberts water means life, death & opportunity; the biggest challenge is that climate change impacts every aspect of the water sector & so will need a whole sector response
But there is also enormous opportunity for water sector to lead in the kind of transformative change that the science is calling for; cities also can have a catalytic role
The real limitation in limiting global warming to 1.5°C is societal & political; climate impacts felt now mean no leader can escape & societal pressure for change is growing
Debra Roberts
Author: Debra Roberts
Professor Debra Roberts heads the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives function in eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa). In 2015 Prof. Roberts was elected as Co-Chair of Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the sixth assessment cycle (2015-2023). She is an Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the School of Life Sciences and has been an advisor to the Global Commission on Adaptation, United Cities and Local Governments and the United Nations Secretary General’s 2019 Climate Summit. In 2019 she was included in a list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy.
Read more from Debra Roberts →

The content of this interview was extracted from one of the video interviews CWR’s Dawn McGregor conducted as part of Singapore International Water Week 2022 Water Leaders Interview Series. The video interviews are not available yet but watch the full interview video via SIWW+ digital content hub from 1 June 2022 onwards.

In this interview McGregor sat down with Dr Debra Roberts, Co-Chair, Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released its report in February 2022 (more on this below). What does ‘water’ mean to Dr Roberts? Plus find out why she thinks water can be the rallying point for climate leadership, how cities can play a catalytic role and more.

IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. The IPCC prepares comprehensive Assessment Reports. The Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report assesses the impacts of climate change, looking at ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels. It also reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change.

CWR: Hi Debra, thanks for making the time to speak with us today. You’re not actually from the water industry, more from the climate sphere as Co-Chair of Working Group II of the IPCC so why have you come to SIWW?

Dr Debra Roberts (DR): Well, an invitation. I think as with many sectors globally, the water sector is now well aware of the fact that the intersection with climate change is creating unique and unusual challenges and opportunities and I think they really wanted to hear what the science had to say so that they can take it into consideration in discussions this week.

CWR: Glad you got the invite and glad you made it over here. Even though you are not from the water sphere we will still ask you, in 3 words could you describe what water means to you?

DR: The first word has to be life, life follows water. Given the challenges we are currently facing and having just come from a city that has been badly flooded, death follows very quickly on that. And I think there is enormous opportunity to do things differently. So, it would be life, death and opportunity.

CWR: Could you share with us the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for the water sector that the IPCC’s WGII AR6 report highlights?

DR: I think the biggest challenge for the water sector is that climate change takes no prisoners. It impacts every aspect of the water sector and I think that is a real challenge. If it only affected precipitation that would be one thing, but it impacts precipitation, groundwater, extreme events, all of those. So, what we’ve got is compounding risks in the water sector, which is really going to require a whole sector response.

While there are huge challenges, there is also huge opportunity for the water sector…

…water can lead the kind of transformative change that science is calling for

Having said that I think there is a huge opportunity in the water sector, it is one sector that touches all of our lives. Every single person’s life is touched by water, every aspect of our development is touched by water. I think there is an enormous opportunity for the water sector to lead in terms of the kind of transformative change that the science is calling for.

You must remember we face a unique challenge in this point in time. The evidence points to the need for a whole of society response to the climate change challenge. That transformation needs to happen in the next decade, so you really need something that is a rallying call for action. I think water could be that rallying point for society with the water sector leading the way in terms of climate change response.

CWR: I like your idea that we can use water as that rallying point. As the report says it is a bleak outlook for the future of humankind and that there is narrowing window of opportunity to act. So, how can we fast rack action? What would you like to see?

DR: I think the water sector can make the climate challenge more legible and more understandable to a broad range of society because water is so central to our day-to-day lives.

The real limitation in limiting global warming to 1.5°C is societal & political

There is no chemical or physical law that is preventing us from actually achieving a world where we limit global warming to 1.5°C. The real limitation is societal and political. That puts the focus on how we interact with each other, how we respect each other, how we use the different types of knowledge and use resources more justly and equitably. We are really talking about a social revolution. The current institutions we have set-up are not fit for purpose in terms of the world the science is showing us we need in order to ensure our well-being and that of the planet.

CWR: With accelerating impacts and the maladaptation mentioned in the report, can you give some insight on how timelines for modelling scenarios should be used? Especially since when you are talking with people it is their lifetime, their now and maybe the next generation and that can be powerful, but for business and finance it is much shorter. So, how can we get people with short targets to extend them, especially giving the already baked in impacts and cascading events?

DR: Sea level rise is one example of a climate risk that will be present and affecting our lives over centuries. But it is not only about timelines but also the scale of the impacts. We’ve seen Australia burn at the continental level, we’ve seen heat domes over the Northwest of Canada and North America and the floods in Europe, China and most recently in southern Africa. And that’s why if you look at the Working Group II report, we make it very clear that action in the next decade is critical. The Working Group III similarly indicated that we are living in a critical decade where we have the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a way that can limit global warming to 1.5°C.

“We no longer have to theorise about the [climate] impacts, we are living them…

…And that is going to lead to societal pressure for change.”

We are likely to see irreversible changes begin to happen in the world as a result of climate change. We’ve already seen the extinction of species because of climate change. Even if we only exceed 1.5ºC for several decades this will cause species extinctions and losses of entire ecosystems such as mountain tops, tropical coral reefs and coastal wetlands. And the moment that we undermine the natural system, we begin to undermine our own development opportunities.

We no longer have to theorise about the impacts, we are living them, and I think no leader can now claim that climate change will happen sometime in the future, it’s here and now. And that is going to lead to societal pressure for change. We’ve seen this with the mobilisation of youth.

CWR: The report calls for transformative climate resilient development, which kind of echoes what Singapore’s Sustainability and the Environment Minister Grace Fu called for in the opening plenary with “massive change”, are you able to give some insights on what it means exactly?

DR: It is literally about change everywhere at all scales. It is a change in the way we distribute resources globally be those resources financial or technical or in terms of capacity and skills. So, it is a change in the deeply unequal society we have created. We are talking about this massive mobilisation towards goals that we’ve spoken about but never been able to realise and that is where the transformation comes in, it is resetting the dial across all societal and ecological systems. It is an existential crisis, it is time to reinvent ourselves or hit the wall.

CWR: We are coming to the end of our time, any last words to wrap?

DR: It’s important to acknowledge that it’s possibly going to be a suboptimal world going forward and that it is necessary to find purpose in dealing with that challenge and that is where I think the water sector can play a key role.

Cities also have a catalytic role to play

Cities also have a catalytic role to play. They are the home to the majority of our species, the bulk of our infrastructure is in or services them, they are the location of industrial development, our energy and water systems are geared to service them. So, I think by working at the level of the city it also begins to make this global project manageable.

CWR: And lastly, what is next for the IPCC after this sixth assessment?

DR: The IPCC is made up of 195 governments and they are currently going through the process of talking about how they want to approach the seventh assessment cycle. The good news on that front is they have already agreed in this assessment cycle to a special report on cities in the next cycle. I think it is an enormous opportunity to build a real bridge from science to policy in a way that people can relate to and understand, and at a scale that makes responding to this global challenge doable for us.

Further reading

More on Latest

  • Water Leaders Summit 2022 – Key Takeaways – From net zero water to sea level rise and floods to droughts, see what the world’s water experts had to say on tackling these challenges at the Water Leaders Summit 2022
  • Key Takeaways From Futureproofing Cities To Avoid Atlantis – Hard truths, disconnects & next steps on coastal protection for the water & finance sectors were discussed at the CWR-SIWW joint event. CWR’s Dawn McGregor shares key takeaways
  • SIWW 2022 – 3 Key Takeaways – CWR was the thematic partner for Singapore International Water Week 2022. See what kept us very busy & our key takeaways from the event
  • A Conversation with Tom Mollenkopf, IWA President – What needs to be done in water community in a changing climate? The president of the renowned global water organisation IWA, Tommy Mollenkopf, shares his experience and view on the challenges the water sector at SIWW 2022
  • A Follow-Up Conversation with SIWW’s Ryan Yuen – It was an exciting SIWW 2022 with face to face discussions & new topics. We sat down with Ryan Yuen, the man who makes SIWW happen to get his thoughts & a sneak peak on what’s in store for the next event