The Climate Diplomat

Eystein Jansen doesn't lose sleep over climate change. But he does spend a lot of time educating people about it.

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Text: Elin Stensvand.
Photo: Eivind Senneset.

It is January 2014, and the everyday life of Professor Eystein Jansen is changing. After serving for 13 years, he has resigned as director of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research (BCCR), a centre he has headed since its foundation in 2000. He is resigning on his own request – at the peak of his career, many will suggest.

Because the west wing of the Geophysical Institute is under renovation, Jansen has been banished to a smaller, more cramped group room for this interview. Here he sits, amongst cartons and furniture items. He is drinking green tea. Lots of green tea. His voice is gentle, but the words that come out are well chosen and determined.

You are resigning as director of the Bjerknes Centre after 13 years, so that must mean that you are not superstitious?

"No, I am neither religious nor superstitious," Jansen smiles. “It's purely by chance that the number of years is 13, but this was a very suitable time to resign. We have undergone a process to develop a better defined organisation, and so it was a good time for someone else to have a go. Also, we have had a very good year, including the financing of many new projects. It's not fitting to leave if there is a crisis and others have to clean up. It's much better to hand over something that is working well.”

The enthusiasm of youth

Nothing in the cards predicted that he would become a climate researcher. As a young man, Eystein Jansen considered studying medicine. However, his curiosity about why the landscape looks the way it does, combined with a fundamental joy for the outdoors led him to study geology.

As a postgraduate, he had the opportunity to conduct advanced chemical analyses in Germany; this was part of a wish on the part of the research environment in Bergen to build a laboratory. No one else had the necessary experience.

“My job was to participate in the drafting of an application that would be better than the one submitted by the University of Oslo, so that we could get the laboratory built in Bergen. When we won the competition, there was a vacant position at the laboratory, and I was hired,” he says.

"I am a shy person of nature. I believe you can achieve more without  using sharp elbows. Particularly when it is a question of building  cooperation, it is unwise to adopt a military style of leadership"

A pretentious vision

His new position opened the path towards a career in palaeoclimate research.

"The visions we had for the Bjerknes Centre when we started were quite pretentious," Jansen says. We started up with the objective of becoming one of the first Centres of Excellence (SFF) in research. When we were awarded this status in autumn 2002, the whole situation changed. We went from being a loose network of people who wanted to develop things to a group punching above our weight.”

Jansen is described as a leader who is good at getting people to cooperate, and he is given much of the credit for turning the interdisciplinary collaborations at Bjerknes into a well-functioning system.

Seeking mutual conversations

You are often described as a diplomatic, gentle man, but one with a clear message. How do you reconcile those two character traits?

“I am a shy person in nature. I believe you can achieve ore without using sharp elbows. Particularly when it is a question of building cooperation, it is unwise to adopt a military style of leadership,” says Jansen. “My style of leadership is maybe more discreet, but I probably do have an ability to think strategically and to see possibilities in the longer term, as well as what needs to be done to realise them. But you have to get people to work with you in the same direction.”

Are you good at convincing people?

“I am a firm believer in good, mutual conversations.”

Putting Bergen on the world climate map

The BCCR decided very early to produce global climate simulations in conjunction with the United Nation's climate reports. The centre's ambition was that Norway should have a model system that generated global simulations.

“The research community in Oslo was very negative to this idea. They had tried this themselves and failed. They therefore thought that it would be biting off more than one could chew,” Jansen recalls.

With determined work, Jansen and his colleagues forged an environment resulting in several Bergen researchers' having key roles in global climate research today.

“By the fourth report, there were only four centres in Europe that could offer global climate scenarios, and we were one of the four. The establishment of the Bjerknes Centre as a heavy international research institute has been very important.”

"I don't lose sleep over the climate of the future. It's not quite that bad yet. But there is every reason to be worried.  The knowledge we have now is not pleasant and is therefore important to  communicate to the public. So we spend very much time, in all kinds of  forums, giving lectures about these things."
Photo: Frode Ims

Exciting work at IPCC

In September 2013, the UN's climate panel, IPCC, presented the first sub-report in the fifth report on climate. Jansen was one of the key researchers responsible for this. In 2007 he was the only Norwegian researcher to participate in the final discussions on the UN's fourth report on the climate.

"The most exciting thing about being involved with this is that you get an overview of all the climate research available, and you also get total immersion in your own scientific field," Jansen says.

Do you sometimes lose sleep and worry about climate in the future?

“It's not quite that bad yet. But there is every reason to be worried. The knowledge we have now is not pleasant and is therefore important to communicate to the public. So we spend very much time, in all kinds of forums, giving lectures about these things.

"By the time we presented the report, I had given more than thirty lectures, and I am looking at a minimum of one per week from now on.”

A new everyday life

At the turn of the year, Jansen embarked on a new everyday life. He will still work at the BCCR, but now with the title of researcher and adviser. He looks forward to having more time for his own research.

“I have spent a lot of time and effort on facilitating other researchers. One of the things I have missed is being able to implement my own ideas from the ground up rather than delegate everything to others,” he says.

Before Christmas it was announced that the BCCR will receive between NOK 50 and 60 million from the European Research Council (ERC) to investigate what will happen with the Greenland ice sheet if the ocean ice in the Norwegian Sea and the Arctic Ocean disappears. Of a total of 450 project applications from all disciplines, only 13 got through the eye of the needle.

“Getting this project approved was incredibly rewarding. Many people thought it was pointless to apply, but we thought that this was an important issue, one that could only be solved if we had large financial resources available. With my background, it was especially nice to get this project grant now, towards the end of my career, and to prove that palaeoclimate research in Bergen is world-class,” says Eystein Jansen.

This article is also published in the UiB Magazine 2015/2016. You can download a PDF of the full magazine or browse the magazine online.