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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

65: When Climate Science Meets Policy with Dr Debra Roberts

by Tiffany Xiang Verga on 2021-11-22T17:04:11+01:00 | Comments

Tiffany Verga:  

Hi, I'm Tiffany Verga and welcome to the next page, the UN Library and Archives Geneva podcast designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. This is the second episode in our green month of November in support of COP 26. During this month we have a few episodes planned that are dedicated to the important conversations on climate and of course, the role multilateralism plays in these discussions over the last year, there were many global decisions being. 

From artificial intelligence to public health to climate and across all these decisions, policymakers have needed scientific evidence to guide their policy. But the world of policy and the world of science are seemingly at times two different realms. 

In today's episode we talked the intersection of science and policy with a self-titled bridge Builder. 

Debra Roberts:  

We were never trained we had to teach ourselves how to bridge that gap. 

Tiffany Verga: 

That’s Debra Roberts and today she joins us to discuss this intersection and what she hopes to see in the future, let's take a listen. 

Welcome to the podcast, thank you so much for joining us. 

Debra Roberts: 

Great and thanks, Tiffany so much for that very warm welcome. 

Tiffany Verga: 

For some context for our listeners, before we begin, you've had a very vast and extensive career taking you from science to strategy. You're currently the Head of the sustainable and resilient city Initiatives unit in the eThekwini Municipality in Durban and prior to this post you established the eThekwini Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department. You are also a leader in Chapter 8 urban areas and you contributed to chapter 12 on Africa for the IPCC 5th assessment report and then you were elected as the Co-chair for the sixth assessment for the same working group. But, I think our listeners would love to hear more about yourself from your perspective. Could you share with our listeners a little bit about yourself and how you came to be working in the role that you currently are and what drives you to work on sustainability in cities? 

Debra Roberts: 

Well, I mean obviously there's long history as your introduction indicated, and I actually started off as a a researcher and an academic on many, many eons ago, but rapidly became disillusioned with what I saw as the increasing gulf between the world of science and policy. So in South Africa we moved to democracy in 1994, there was this era of change and I thought that would be a good time for me to also make a move. So, I left the world of research in academia and joined local government in in 1994 and have been there ever since. And as you've indicated, I've played a variety of roles in Durban, firstly establishing the department that focused in very much on biodiversity planning and management also looking at issues of climate change adaptation. But upon my election as Co - Chair of the Working Group, two of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I moved to a new portfolio which is a strategic portfolio really looking at how we integrate broad concerns around sustainability and resilience into the work that the city does across all sectors so really oving away from what was a strongly environmental focus to one that's slightly broader, more strategic. The kind of work that we're doing there now is very interesting, it's not the kind of place I thought someone with a pH.D in biology would end up in that we're currently working on data management related to informal settlements so that we can improve the way we service and respond to the needs of almost 600 informal settlements that exist in our city. 

We're also working on transport-oriented development was one of the the key ways of improving sustainability and resilience. This is about changing the form of our urban areas and transport is a key structuring element. So really looking at opportunities for transport to address not only the need to move people more efficiently, but to do that in a sustainable way in a way that doesn't contribute to climate change that doesn't impact on biodiversity also, working at a very high level on strategic environmental assessment for the city which is required by by South African rule. So quite a mixed bag currently. 

Tiffany Verga 

As I said, you have such a fascinating history and especially this transition you've had from a primarily science-based role into academia and then local government incorporating your science background into a strategic city work. Moving onto your work with the IPCC  I think many of our listeners are likely familiar with the IPCC report especially the recent code Red for Humanity Edition, but for our listeners who might not know what the IPCC is, what it does? What does that acronym mean? Could you tell us a little bit more about that? 

Debra Roberts: 

Thanks Tiffany indeed I think the IPCC which is one of those dreadful acronyms we tend to use around, is in fact intergovernmental panel on climate change and what it is, is a group of 195 governments who in every assessment cycle and we're currently in the sixth assessment cycle, assemble a group of global scientists to produce scientific reports. Scientific assessment reports that enable our policymakers to understand not only the cause, but the impacts and possible responses to human induced climate change and that's work that's been ongoing for some 33 years now. So, the IPCC has a long provenance and as you say has probably received the greatest profile it's ever achieved in this assessment cycle, not only with a special report on 1.5 degrees of global warming but on the recent release of the working Group One report which looks at the physical changes in the planetary system as a result of climate change. And I think many of our listeners might say, well, what is working Group One and are there more working groups? So indeed, the work of the IPCC is so extensive it's divided across three working groups. 

As I say, working Group One deals with the physical science and helping us understand how the planetary systems. Change in response to climate change working groups two and three answer the So what question? It's one thing knowing that the climate is going to change and that there were physical changes in the system. But what does it mean for human society? The natural systems? We depend on and working Group 2 comes in to answer those questions because it looks at the impact adaptation and vulnerability to climate change across human and natural systems and in our colleagues in working groups, three bring up the rear by looking at opportunities for mitigation so you can see a very broad sweep of scientific assessment. Basically, positioning scientific material in a way that the policymakers at the global level can access it and use it in their decision making. 

Tiffany Verga 

You've led our listeners perfectly to our next topic. As I mentioned, you're currently Co-chair of the Working group II or as you've explained, one of the ‘So what?’ groups. Could you tell us a little bit about what being a Co-chair even means and what your role looks like? 

Debra Roberts 

Yeah, so being a Co-chair of one of our working groups is  a very busy position, so I'm in this unusual position of being both a local government official so we get the local level and then having a foot in the global community with this position of IPCC coaching. Our role is essentially, to oversee and guide the production of the reports that the 195 governments specify they require at the beginning of every assessment cycle. So during the course of this assessment cycle, we've had three special reports. One on 1.5 degrees global warming, one on land, one on oceans and cryosphere and our job as co –chairs is to ensure that we become involved in not only selecting the scientists who will write these reports. Looking at the nominations that we receive from governments and observer organization to the IPCC but also ensuring that the material that's produced is relevant and answers the key questions that governments posed to us in the approved outline for every report. So essentially, we provide high level guidance and management supported by a Technical Support unit in each working group in the past that Technical Support unit was located in the country of the Global Most Co chair. Because each working group has two Co chairs, one from the global North, one from the global South, and this is the first assessment cycle we will have three Global South Co chairs, actually have elements of support in the places that they live.  We work with our Technical Support unit to ensure this production of these very substantial reports. The reports we're currently working on, because we've completed the three special reports of this assessment cycle are the main assessments and those are the assessments of working group 1/2 and three that I've already run through and will also contribute to the production of the synthesis report, which same ties up all the main messaging of the assessment cycle and that will be released at at the end of next year. 

Tiffany Verga 

It sounds like an incredibly elaborate production happening behind the scenes to happen with so much global coordination, it leads me into my next question, which is that. Understanding climate change science and its impact on society is quite complex, and incorporating science into policy gets even more complex. So, through your work with the IPCC and a working group to what are your observations of some of the challenges in this process of incorporating science into policy? 

Debra Roberts 

Yeah, it's a very busy interface. This world that exists between the world's of science and policy, and I think the first big challenges, is one of communication in the sense that if you think about the huge production machine that the IPCC actually is I mean, we convene a couple of thousand scientists, this is in every assessment cycle, 22 drafts reports and those scientists look across literally hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed papers and other reports during the course of their work. The question is, how do you take all that information and put it down in a way that becomes easily accessible to policymakers, because certainly I know from many years of experience, your high-level policymakers decision maker really doesn't have the time to read anything much more than a page at base. 

Generally, a paragraph is stretching it, and so I think there's this big communication challenge that exists between the production of a very thorough and comprehensive scientific assessment report and getting those core messages out to the policy world. The communication tools that the IPCC has traditionally used take form of a summary for policymakers, each report comes with that, so we just still aren't the main policy relevant images, as I say. The synthesis report also becomes a vehicle for lifting and highlighting the key messages that are relevant for for policymakers, but we realize that that's not enough in and of itself. And and this assessment cycle has really taken great steps forward in terms of communication, 'cause each working group is now supported by a communication specialist to ensure that. In our summary products, we really are communicating in the most effective way possible. We also produce a variety of presentations you know, we interact with a variety of communities and spreading the message so that communication, I think is absolutely vital. 

Good scientific assessment is of no help to anyone, and these people can actually understand. I also think for the world of policy and decision making, and I love that he's partially in that world a key thing for us is the consideration of timelines. I can tell you, as a a policy making decision maker something that happens in 2100 is of little interest to me. I'm most interested in what happens over the next one to five years at most and very often it's quite challenging to bring science into that role of immediacy. You know, the present and the next couple of years. I also think scale is an important consideration because global assessments, like those produced by the IPCC are important. But again, most decision makers and policymakers are interested in the country, in the city and the region, and so getting that science down to the kind of scale that's useful to for decision makers is important. I also think we need to close the loop because we assume that knowledge only flows from science to policy, but in fact policymakers are huge knowledge generators themselves and what we do need to ensure, which I think will improve the science is to ensure that the knowledge from policy and decision making actually flows back and informs the science. So I think there's a lot to do at that intersection. I think we we've done a lot, but still a lot of challenge remains. 

Tiffany Verga 

There's really so much to consider in this report from what it produces to how people see and interpret it. I touched earlier about just the production level of these IPCC reports, how do you coordinate such a global contribution from scientists into reports such as those produced by the IPCC? And what does that look like? Do you have any stories of this process in action? 

Debra Roberts 

Yeah, so I mean it, it is a carefully curated process. As I said, scientists are convened to reduce outlines of those reports. Those outlines go back to the governments in the form of the plenary meetings of the panel to prove. The governments and observer organisations to the IPCC then nominate authors against those outlines and then the bureaus of each working group. So the Co-chair  is supported by their vice chairs, elect the authors against the approved outline for that report and the modality we used pre pandemic. To convene those authors was the form of lead author Netex, sofor a special report, would convene on the order of 80 to 100 authors. For a week in a place for the main assessment reports that you need 2 to 300 authors would convene over a week long period, and those scientists would come together in their chapters. They would engage, on the literature, they would share their views and assess that literature and so on obviously  the pandemic has really set the cat out the box for pigeons because we've had to have these vast meetings into the virtual world, and that certainly had some advantages. It's allowed a lot more cross working group interaction, because we've got a very heavy meeting schedule within the working groups and often very difficult to to get to the meetings of our colleagues and other working groups. But if it's virtually done, we can get greater access to those meetings. But also it's posed real challenges for colleagues. Such as in the Global South, connectivity challenges, obviously being amongst the priorities, but also the cultural differences mean that some voices can dominate discussions. Others may be more hesitant to bring their their voices forward in the virtual world, and so it's required this very careful balancing of meeting objectives against shoring accessibility. Ensuring that a diversity of voices are represented. Obviously a concern around time zones, you know it's quite easy if you all go to one place for a week ,quite another matter, if you've got that meeting now, spreading over 2 weeks and you've got to work across time zones. You know, I've had many instances where I've had. To get up at 1:00 in. The morning to attend Sessions for my Asian colleagues. To make it acceptable timing for for them to participate in the discussion so it is a very large endeavor indeed whether it takes place in person or in the virtual world. 

Tiffany Verga 

I also agree. I think there have been a lot of positives that have come out of this digital transformation of meeting and talking to one another, but I can definitely agree that these early voting time zone changes really are not the most favorable, but it does bring me to my next question. Following all of these new shifts and how we meet and how multilateralism plays out? What are your thoughts on the role of multilateralism today? Do you have hope that science can play a stronger role in multilateral decisions? 

Debra Roberts 

Well, I think you know one of the cool DNA elements of of the IPCC is regional balance and diversity in in the assessments that that we do. And I think that applies to the consideration of multilateralism. As well, there is no silver bullet, there is no single solution, due to the climate change challenge, every solution has to be looked at in the context within which we are going to use it and therefore multilateralism is vital because there isn't a single group or individual who can speak with confidence on behalf of us all, and so I think just as the IPCC really acknowledges the importance of having a diverse group of voices originally balanced group of voices producing the reports. And approving the summary for policymakers at the approval session. So, multilateralism is critical in ensuring that the kind of solutions options that are identified by science can be translated in an authentic way into the locals in which the challenges are occurring. So, I think diversity, regional balance and science must be equally married with a diversity and regional balance. In the policy and decision making world and that makes the importance of multilateralism absolutely inescapable. If we're serious about finding a solution. 

Tiffany Verga 

What a wonderful and inspiring response. There is no one solution. No silver bullet and multilateralism is vital, It's very powerful indeed. My next question kind of talks on the topic of enabling people to all come together, especially in relation to environmental policy. Many of the world problems with regard to climate change require solutions from the scientific community. What can scientists do to aid policymakers in creating policy who are ften, under time constraints that accurately reflects the latest scientific data.  

Debra Roberts: 

Obviously I'm speaking not on behalf of the scientist who called generally, but more specifically the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What is really important about the work that the IPCC does and we've got a amantia? Our work has to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive, so we're certainly not in the business. Of specifying any particular set of solutions in terms of the the questions that are asked of the science. What we do is. We lay out. The broad range of response options that exist, and then it's really over to the decision maker and and policymaker to determine which of those are appropriate in the context that they work. But in terms of ensuring that the policymaker can pick up that information and can deploy it in a timeless way. Because we all know that. The clock is ticking and we've got some very tight timelines for the ambitious action we need to deliver. If we are serious. About a low carbon and and climate resilient world, then that information has to speak to the timescale that's important to to a decision maker. Depending on what scale they are, they are operative or are working at and certainly in terms of the scale of of the information that's required. And I, I think we've seen you know, a substantial improvement in the assessments that the IPCC has produced. Certainly in this assessment cycle, where we've been particularly. That about being sensitive to timelines to gathering information across a variety of of time scales, and in fact in response to some questions from our policymakers in some instances, thinking about impacts well beyond 2100 out to 2300, because there are some policymakers who want to know the long term consequences. Of these changes, but also sensitive to the fact. That people living their daily lives want to see a change in the world now. So really thinking about what is immediate, what can be done now? So I think we've been sensitive to that in the world of the IPCC. Of course we are drawing on the peer reviewed literature and the grey literature. We don't do research of our own. And so the assessment that we do while being thoughtful about time can only be determined by what is in the literature. So I think there is an increasing pressure on scientists to be mindful in their research of the fact that they need to think. Across the full. Time span, short, medium and and long. Turn the scale of information looks also important. I think the global assessments certainly have had become more and more detailed. But what we need is fail to draw with a greater degree of confidence that information down to more regional and and local scales, because that's certainly where some of the key. Decision making will need to happen. The majority of us now live in cities were in urban species for the first time in our species history and therefore local authorities and cities become important locals. For key decision making in terms of infrastructure in terms of protecting our natural systems in terms of improving well being enhancing equity but not a lot of the information we we present can be used with confidence at at the local scale and I would say that what science can do is really invest in ensuring that. We certainly have that store multi level availability of science, not only science that we have a high degree of confidence in at. The global level. But increasingly want to improve their confidence. Tables for the local decision makers so that they can take that science on board and use it in a very constructive way in their day-to-day decision making. 

Tiffany Verga 

It only sounds like we. Need scientists to be aware of this? This marketing element. What is the audience? What do they want? What do they need and how will they process that information once they get what they need? I find that quite interesting. The next question, selfishly I ask is someone who doesn't come from a science background, but also for all of our non science background listeners. How do we improve? Science literacy in the future for non scientists and. Everyday citizens who want to understand and who want to grasp the concepts that scientists are trying to communicate to us. 

Debra Roberts 

There is only one way we've got to make the science relevant to people's everyday lives. They dreams their aspirations, they need and and I think that's absolutely critical. And and we've got. To realize that to do that, obviously the considerations I've given you around time and scale important. In terms of the basics in forming. Our scientific research, but then we need to work with partners because certainly in an organization like the IPCC, we've got a very clear mandate we're going to produce a scientific assessment. We can do everything we can to ensure that that scientific assessment is available and accessible to as many people around the world as possible. But it still won't necessarily be speaking. With the level. Of precision and specificity that particular groups require, and therefore derivative products are really important. So for example, in this assessment cycle, when we produce. The IPCC Special report on 1.5 degrees of global warming, local governments and city networks rallied to produce a derivative product, so it's not an IPCC product, but using the IPCC product, they produced a summary for urban policymakers on that report to ensure that the key messages that we learned. That community reached that community, and the same will be done by the urban and and local government communities, again with the main assessment reports to ensure that that message gets out. I and my team obviously being based in Africa are very aware of the fact that the first thing a decision maker will ask you when the IPCC reports comes out is well, what does it mean? For my country? My region, my city, and so we've worked to produce the first dedicated regional information. For for Africa. By pulling out the African messages of the three special probes and doing outreach in Africa. Using that information on on the special reports because people understand where they live and therefore it's easier for them to relate to. And we'll do the same thing. With the main assessment report. 

Tiffany Verga 

I couldn't agree more I I think that relatable content to the context of someone's lives is so incredibly important because people are always asking that question of why do they care about it today, tomorrow, next week when. When they're also living very busy everyday lives, and it sounds like you know there, there could be some work in that collaboration between who picks up the IPCC report, but also who projects it and how they angle it to the audience that they're catering for to on that line then. What do you hope the future of collaboration between scientists and policymakers will look like in the future.  

Debra Roberts 

Back to the previous point we were discussing is how do you make sure that the information you produce through your scientific assessment through your research is actually talking to to people needs, aspirations and and and challenges. And really, the only way to do that is to create a much more effective bridge between worlds of science and policymakers because it's absolutely unrealistic to assume that all scientists will become sufficiently affair with the policy and decision making world that they'll be able to bridge that that gulf by themselves. It's absolutely unrealistic to expect that every policy making decision maker becomes sufficiently fluent in science that they can build a gulf or a bridge across that Gulf, and so really what I'm very passionate about is the often invisible role of the bridge builders. Those people who have an interest and the capacity to have a foot in both camp, because we can't expect the majority of scientists be policymakers or the majority of policymakers to be scientists but there are people who are capable of of bridging that Gulf of bringing the science into policy and bringing policy into to science. And I don't think we pay enough attention to training those people. I've played that role throughout my career and know others who have and and what is unique about our experiences when we talk to one another is we were never trained. We had to teach ourselves how to bridge that gap and I think we need to focus more on making opportunities available for people who want to play that that bridging role, creating the kind of skills base that allows people to move between those those two worlds in a much more effective and and visible way. The answer is to acknowledge that this is a world of joined up science and joined up policy and you need the people who are good at joining and those are the bridge builders. And I say, I've I've done that for pretty much the last 30 years, and it's often a very invisible role, and I think it's a role we need to take knowledge and and help people. Who are coming into both worlds of policy and science to know that they have that option to to play that role and and make training and experiential opportunities available to them. 

Tiffany Verga 

Bridge builders, what a wonderful phrase and. I think a. Perfect definer of the role that you play in fulfilling your job today. Debra, do you have any final thoughts for our audience that you'd like for them to remember? 

Debra Roberts 

Well as coach of Working Group 2 to do some marketing, we've obviously had the important working Group One report come out which has told us about how we can expect the physical systems of our planet to change because of of climate change I would imagine. Those people are saying, well, what does that?  For me working group two will offer at least a partial answer to to that question when our report is released in February, so really urging people to keep the eye out for the working Group 2 reports. For our colleagues in working Group 3. We're bringing up the rear with the mitigation options and that will be in March. So two really important words coming out from the IPCC next year, so please keep tuned and keep an eye out.  

Tiffany Verga 

Well, we'll definitely link both of these reports when they come out so that our listeners can follow the work that Working Group 2 is doing. Where can our listeners find out more about the work that you're doing. 

Debra Roberts 

Well, I think the most important by Web resources, probably the IPCC website, so a very easy one. www.ipcc.ch and I would really urge everyone to go and look at at that. It's a very rich treasure trove of information on the IPCC and the work that we do nd obviously has the vast catalogue of of reports that we produced in the past, so really advocating that that's the place to go. 

Tiffany Verga 

Correct, so Doctor Debra Roberts, thank you so much for being with us today. It was such a pleasure having you on the podcast. 

Debra Roberts 

Excellent thank you Tiffany. 

Tiffany Verga 

We hope you enjoyed the conversation with Doctor Debra Roberts. If you'd like any more information please don't hesitate to check out our show notes for useful links that we've attached. If you love this episode of the Next page podcast, Don't forget to subscribe rate, leave us a review or find us @UNOGLibrary on Twitter and UN Library and Archives Geneva on Facebook. Join us next week for our final episode of our green month of November for COP 26 and we hope you have a wonderful week. 

 


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