Debra Roberts on why she is running to be chair of the IPCC
Editors note: the IPCCs new chair will be elected at its 59th session in Nairobi on July 25th-28th. Three weeks ago we invited all four candidates for the post to contribute a piece to this section; Dr Roberts and Jean-Pascal van Ypersele agreed to do so. REFLECTING ON THE Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCCs) sixth assessment cycle, known as AR6, I am struck by the extent to which global challenges, once distant or abstract, are now immediate and personal. Global crises made me caregiver to my 100-year-old father during the covid pandemic; contributed to a week of poverty-fuelled civil unrest where I live in South Africa; and saw flood waters engulf our home because of the ever-warming atmosphere. These experiences remind us why science is so important. Evidence-based decision-making has allowed the world to respond to the pandemic, attribute extreme events to climate change and understand that inequity anywhere undermines a safer, more sustainable future for everyone. For the past 35 years the IPCC has provided decision-makers with scientific evidence to inform policy. Over the first five assessment cycles the panel explained the causes and impacts of climate change, whereas the most recent cycle has focused on identifying solutions. But during the United Nations decade of actionaimed at stepping up action to tackle the worlds biggest challengesit is clear that we need not only solutions, but also an assessment of their feasibility and effectiveness to inform ambitious short-term action. And action is critical as the AR6 reports conclude that the pace and scale of what has been done so far are insufficient to tackle climate change. This is the challenge for the seventh assessment cycle, AR7. Having worked at the interface between science, policy and practice for more than 30 years in the fields of climate change, biodiversity, sustainability and resilience, I know how difficult it is to turn science into action. Experience has taught me that the best outcomes come from working together to prioritise equity and shared responsibility. My priority as chair of the IPCC would be to build a strong leadership team. I would harness the strengths of the vice-chairs and the Working Group and Task Force/Group co-chairs and bureaus to strategically plan the scientific workflow of the cycle and determine how we make IPCC operations more sustainable. That will involve assessing and reducing the carbon footprint of IPCCs own activities. An AR7 leadership team with a shared vision and clear roles would drive even stronger scientific integration than we saw in AR6. The Special Report on Cities offers an early opportunity to put increased integration into practice. Ensuring more balanced representation of women and scientists from the global south, and addressing data gaps for the south, should be priorities for AR7. My appointment as the first female chair, and the first from Africa, would encourage more women and global-south scientists to volunteer their time. I would also work with the IPCC vice-chairs to liaise more closely with member governments, who are responsible for identifying national experts, to ensure that a more representative range of authors are nominated for AR7 reports. In addition, we need to make the work environment more inclusive, for instance by training people to work effectively in diverse, multicultural teams. Ensuring that the Gender Action Team concludes the work on a code of conduct and complaints process should also help. Engaging more young scientists is critical. By involving early-career scientists and IPCC scholarship recipients, and providing clear roles for Chapter Scientists, who give technical and logistical support to authors, we can help ensure the longevity of the organisation. Strengthening the organisation must be accompanied by actions that enhance the scientific leadership of the IPCC. Given the increase in climate-change-related literature, I believe AR6 was the last assessment cycle in which it was possible to produce a comprehensive assessment of the literature using traditional means. In AR7 we should evaluate new tools such as AI and machine learning, which can potentially assist the assessment process and increase access to non-English literature. We must ensure that authors from the global south have equal access. AR7 will require broader engagement with those who hold indigenous and local knowledge, which will be crucial in developing strategies that improve stewardship of ecosystems, increase biodiversity and improve resilience. Better co-ordination with the work of other global initiatives, such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which was created to bridge the gap between biodiversity science and policy, should also be prioritised. Finally, if IPCC reports are to inform fast and far-reaching implementation, we must be willing to question whether lengthy assessment reports delivered at the end of the decade of action are the best approach. Shorter, more focused special reports may better support ambitious action and the second Global Stocktakethe process that enables governments and other stakeholders to assess progress made in meeting the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change. We should step up regionally focused communication efforts and encourage other networks, including NGOs, to produce their own reports based on IPCC material. The chair should play a central role in IPCC communications. As a skilled science communicator, I am well placed to do that. In the decade of action, we need IPCC leadership with the right experience. As an active publishing scientist and skilled practitioner, I bring a practical approach to the science. My experience would help me to build bridges inside and outside the IPCC. I would ensure that the panels work stays independent of politics, is fair and balanced, prioritises scientific integrity and creates a work environment that values all voices. The science of AR7 will be critical to ensuring we leave no person, place or ecosystem behind. Debra Roberts is IPCC Co-Chair of Working Group II (Sixth Assessment Cycle); heads the sustainability and resilience function in eThekwini municipality in Durban; and holds the Professor Willem Schermerhorn Chair in Open Science from a Majority World Perspective at the University of Twente. Read a piece by another candidate to chair the IPCC, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, here.