Deliang Chen has been awarded a prize by Sweden’s King Carl Gustav, has held numerous UN commissions of trust and is internationally renowned for his significant contributions to climate research. He wants to produce knowledge that will make a difference, although he believes there are risks with goals that are too specific.
How can we understand climate change, and what will it lead to? These questions have occupied Deliang Chen for decades, and over the years he has produced vital knowledge on climate change both in Sweden and abroad. He has also been very involved in communicating research to the broader community, including through key commissions of trust in weighty organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Council for Science (ICSU).
Recently, he accepted H.R.H. The King’s Medal of the 8th size with the ribbon of the Order of the Seraphim for his research, something he calls “a genuine sign that the research team in Gothenburg is making a positive contribution internationally”. From a garden chair in Mölndal, where Deliang Chen has lived for nearly 30 years, he calmly and thoughtfully talks about the driving forces behind his research.
“We know that global climate change is occurring. If we have more knowledge of how and why, we can also act: adapt, be prepared and try to lessen its effects,” he says.
In recent years, much of Deliang Chen’s research has focused on the ‘third pole’ – the Tibetan Plateau. He is part of an international research team exploring trends on the remote plateau, where expeditions can require helicopter trips as well as long treks with instruments.
Why is knowledge about the Tibetan Plateau so important?
“It is a sensitive area of great significance for its surroundings. A quarter of the global population gets its water supply from the Plateau, and what makes it particularly interesting is that global warming is happening at approximately twice the rate there as in the rest of the world. So research there can really make a difference.”
“We are looking at climate change, why it is happening and what its consequences are. A big focus is on the changes to the monsoon rains that impact agriculture. We know that what is happening on the Tibetan Plateau could happen in other high mountain ranges, for example the Andes. This knowledge can also help us to understand what is happening in the Arctic, as many of the physical processes are the same.”
You are strongly committed to communicating the research to the broader community. Why is that?
“When you witness the effects of climate change, you have a responsibility, and I am lucky to be able to contribute to the knowledge in this area. There is a lot of scepticism and many unscientific arguments circulating about climate, so it’s important that as scientists we can present facts. It’s also a challenge to present the research in a balanced way. We must communicate what we know, but there are also things we don’t know. It can be hard not to become emotional; I am a scientist but also a person who is affected by what I have seen and know. But I have learnt to separate these two things. The role of scientists is to contribute knowledge, but it is not our role to talk about how things should be done, or what policies should be implemented.”
Tell us about your commissions of trust in the IPCC
“They have meant a lot to me. I have held commissions of trust in the IPCC for 20 years and I am a Coordinating Lead Author of the forthcoming IPCC Assessment Report. It’s important to have a global perspective on the big questions and the IPCC is good at uniting the world in the sciences. I like how the IPCC works, that it receives input from the whole world – not just from countries with the biggest research capacities. That way, many different and relevant aspects are captured.”
What is the most difficult aspect of your work?
“Communication outside of academia. Climate research is very complicated and can be sensitive. As a scientist, I am a public figure and often receive comments. Sometimes these can go too far and include personal attacks, and it can be difficult to decide when and how I should respond. I have noticed that arguments from climate change sceptics have changed. Previously, they were about how the climate was not changing – now they claim that people are not impacting the climate or that climate change is not always a bad thing.”
Three questions for Deliang Chen
What drives you?
“Doing something that feels good, that is appreciated and that can benefit humanity. However, what I myself can do is nevertheless limited, and I don’t have the need to be at the centre of things. I would rather help to promote other talented scientists, for example, by sitting on various prize committees.”
Do you have a long-term goal for your research?
“I don’t think that one should have goals that are too long-term or specific. If you do, you could miss important things along the way, focus on the wrong things or neglect other aspects of life. It’s not good if research is only about competing. My goal is to do my best – and if things don’t turn out the way I wanted them to, then that’s okay too. Taoism is an inspiration for me in this respect.”
What are you most proud of?
“I haven’t thought about that, but perhaps my philosophy of life: to do something I believe in and to do my best. As I see it, I have two tasks: the first is to take care of myself and the other is to help the world and other people if I can. Everything I do concerns these tasks, and they are increasingly linked.”
Position: Professor of Physical Meteorology at the Department of Earth Sciences. Holder of the August Röhss Chair in Physical Geography.
In his spare time: Plays the guitar and likes listening to classical music.
Family: Married to Lina. Two sons: Anton and Hans