The health of the Earth and its people are linked


“There is scientific proof that we are in a crisis”

Deliang Chen, Professor in Physical Meteorology and a member of the UN’s climate panel meets Peter Friberg, Professor in Global Public Health and Director of SIGHT, in a meeting on global health and climate change.

Peter Friberg.
Peter Friberg, Director SIGHT

The time for the meeting couldn’t have been better. Professor Deliang Chen has just returned to Gothenburg University from The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences after commenting the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics to the world’s media, as a member of the Academy. It was awarded for, “ground-breaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems,” to two of the winners, Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann. Their research has laid the foundations for our understanding of the Earth’s climate and how mankind affects it. The third winner, Giorgio Parisi, won his prize for his, “revolutionary contributions to the theory of disordered materials and random processes.”

Peter Friberg has also just returned to Gothenburg from the Academy, where the SIGHT secretariat is located.

“There is no doubt about the effect mankind has had on the climate!” exclaims Deliang Chen.

The Nobel Prize confirms that the climate models and the accumulated knowledge which form the basis of the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), have a solid scientific basis. The summary of the IPCC report states even more strongly the indisputable role of humans in climate change.

For Professor Deliang Chen, the well-established historical climate change and improved reliability of projected future climate change are the most important thing to emerge from the IPCC report. Today the global mean temperature is the highest over the last 2000 years. It is obvious that the speed of change in the last 170 years has been exceptional. Models provide more actionable and more reliable information. Further, the IPCC report shows that the regional warmings will be different in a warmer world. The most vulnerable regions will often suffer more. A three-degree increase in global temperatures is both possible – and catastrophic.

“The attribution of the global rise in temperature to human activity have a thorough scientific basis and the recent development made it possible  to connect isolated incidents of extreme weather to global warming. We have not been able to do this previously. While there is no doubt that the increased temperature is caused by human activity, the need for decision-makers to act quickly has become very clear. The situation is urgent.”

Bearing in mind the IPCC’s clear message in its latest report, Peter Friberg cannot hide how pleased he is that the climate researchers of climate models won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2021. “Absolutely fantastic,” he bursts out.

“The IPCC report makes it clearer than ever that the global warming is caused by human activity. Now it’s serious. But the question is how we can get across how enormous the effects are already and going to be on biodiversity, on health, on quality of life and well-being and on the ability of the already most vulnerable people to support themselves. My question is how much the IPCC panel has looked at the effects on health?”

According to Deliang Chen, IPCC reports include increasing amounts of information on health, but there could be more. At one time he had a Nobel prize winner, Paul Crutzen (1933–2021), as his PhD supervisor. He gained his award for “atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”

“It still inspires me,” says Deliang Chen. “The effects of damage to the ozone layer were clear and the world managed to do something about it, thanks partly to Crutzen’s findings.”

Deliang Chen returns to humans’ role in climate change.

“Perhaps we need to learn a little more from ancient philosophy, about harmony and connection with nature. My vision is that in the future climate modelling will include more interactions between human and nature, even if we are already aware of complex factors which are changing the climate. But I believe that we first need to include more data from the fields of social science and health so that research is not carried out in isolated silos. It will affect the way we formulate research questions which is so incredibly important.”

“Western philosophy and scientific tradition tend to look at details, just as in medicine. But a human body is a holistic system. We need more tools to create a holistic view to see how human behaviour affects both the planet and our bodies,” says Deliang Chen, and adds:

“It’s the same in politics. And in universities subjects are divided up between different departments and institutions. In the past there were few scientific subjects, while today there are over 8,000 just within the fields of natural sciences. The consequence is a plethora of proud experts, but not that many who can or want to solve problems.”

Peter Friberg gladly discusses the differing claims of knowledge and action, particularly when it comes to energy and fossil fuels.“A lot of profit is made by doing things the wrong way.”

“Shouldn’t more people from the universities open their doors and become a form of activists on the basis of evidence and scientific fact?” he asks.

Deliang Chen has thought a lot about this question, particularly during his time as head of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

“Basically, science should be of use to society. It was the knowledge about the ozone layer that got the whole world to act. Can we do it again?” he asks. “Politicians, in Sweden for example, are generally not so good at science. Science for policy* can be helpful.”

Peter Friberg reminds us that in global health there are highly developed models for science for policy.

Students and young people, represented by Greta Thunberg, have been trying for a long time to get decision-makers to listen to science. With a portion of anxiety. And, no doubt, Greta has managed to establish climate on everyone´s mind.

“Anxiety and panic don’t help for orderly implementation of needed actions, even if we have good reason to be worried,” says Deliang Chen.

“But it’s not clinical anxiety we’re talking about, and if there is a real crisis it’s appropriate to be a bit anxious if it leads to action. Perhaps anxiety and frustration can be seen as an expression of involvement in the issue and gives energy for the cause,” suggests Peter Friberg.

Deliang Chen believes that proper analysis is important, even for young people. It increases the chance of understanding the problems and finding solutions.

So, we’re back to the question as to whether academics should act as fact-based activists or not. The climate question polarises people. Deliang Chen does not seem to agree that we have stolen our children’s futures. He believes it’s more about what we do now that will have consequences for our children and grandchildren. Research and facts make action possible, but he doesn’t believe that panic helps as a good solution requires careful consideration of many factors including the scientific one by policy makers.

“If we don’t stick to science which we are good at, we run the risk to lose our objectivity which is the foundation of scientific credibility”, thinks Deliang Chen.

“Researchers should focus on science,” he adds. 

The term ‘climate crisis’ is a strong one, you can choose to talk about ‘risk’. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, risk assessment is central. The risk of extreme weather is high up on the list of topics and climate change is growing in importance. As expressed in their global risks report 2021:”Among the highest likelihood risks of the next ten years are extreme weather, climate action failure and human-led environmental damage”

At IPCC, people are working actively with risk framing, which shapes their approach to managing risk.

“In Europe and the US we’re often not particularly good at preparing for or dealing with risks. In Japan, for example, there is a different level of risk awareness because of their history of earthquakes and tsunamis. During the pandemic you could see the difference between Asia and the rest of the world when it comes to preparedness for and handlings of risks.”

“When it comes to health and climate it’s hard to make people understand the connection. A slow-growing threat is often too abstract for us to take in,” thinks Peter Friberg.

“Just take the fact that every year at least seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution, according to the UN’s environmental programme UNEP”, says Peter Friberg.

The climate question, just like global health, requires long-term thinking, something which four-year terms in political office do not favour. It’s usually concrete events that precipitate long-term thinking.

Photocredit: James Wheeler on Unsplash

Deliang Chen and Peter Friberg have both visited Tibet, a place which has both fascinated and overwhelmed them.

“Before my research trip to Tibet I had seen many measurements showing how the glaciers were melting, but to go there and see their importance for water supplies in large parts of Asia was an eye-opening experience. Change is happening faster there than in most other parts of the world. Tibet is important for Asia and if anything happens to water supply there, a large part of the world’s population will be affected – their health and our health.”

* This is the process by which information is transferred from the scientific community to policymakers.


Text: Ulrica Segersten


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