Photo: Bax Lindhardt

“Dialogue is what makes all the difference in the world”

Thursday 25 Apr 19


Kirsten Halsnæs
DTU Management
+45 46 77 51 12

Research Communicator of the Year 2019

On 25 April 2019 Kirsten Halsnæs was awarded the Research Communication Award 2019 for her willingness and ability to communicate her knowledge about the climate and the economy for all groups in society. 

Follow the link to read the article.

With her distinctive voice and the ability to communicate clearly and comprehensibly, Professor at DTU Management Kirsten Halsnæs has for several decades influenced the public debate on climate, economy, and ethics.

Early in her career as an economist and researcher in the Department of Systems Analysis at Risø National Laboratory, Kirsten Halsnæs decided never to say no to journalists or other external enquiries concerning popular communication. No matter how crazy it was, she would say ‘yes’. And over the course of time she has steadfastly kept her promise—even though it has cost her in terms of research time and landed her in some interesting situations.

“You get nervous when you have to argue with Bjørn Lomborg on national TV,” she admits. “But I’ve always believed that you should help society by sharing your knowledge. In this way you can also help to promote an agenda.”

“Some researchers view journalists as a nuisance and would prefer to remain silent until their findings have been published. But I think that’s far too arrogant an attitude towards the media. If you want to influence the debate, you have to be ready when journalists call and do what you can to help them.”

Simple numbers are not enough

Kirsten Halsnæs holds an MSc in Economics, a PhD, and is an economic affairs expert. Nevertheless, she believes there are limits to what can be expressed in numbers. This is a point she has argued with Bjørn Lomborg.

“Does it make sense to say that if the temperature rises 4-5 degrees, it will only cost all the countries of the world 2 per cent of GDP? I don’t think so. You can’t calculate the costs in such simplistic terms—among other things because there will not only be material damage, but also psychological damage in the form of increased anxiety and restlessness among children and adults,” asserts Kirsten.

Nor does she support what she calls narrow-minded campaigns aimed at getting us all to stop eating meat or feel guilty about commercial flying. She believes that these kinds of initiatives only serve to paralyze us.

“If we are to achieve the major global goal of staying below a 1.5 degree rise in temperature, everyone must do something—the agricultural sector, the transport sector, ordinary consumers, etc.—and we must welcome all initiatives. “I also think that the state should support the sustainable technologies and that it would be a good idea to transform the tax system in order to support sustainable choices.”

Dialogue is key

"I’m not a pessimist—I see a lot of positive signs—e.g. the introduction of various forms of renewable energy has happened much faster than expected."
Professor Kirsten Halsnæs

The majority of Kirsten Halsnæs’ working life has been spent at Risø—and subsequently DTU. She began in the section for energy systems, working with large models for the financial consequences of introducing various energy technologies. But when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1990 established a centre at Risø to conduct research into energy, climate, and sustainable development in the developing countries, Kirsten found her true calling. That was when she really grasped the importance of not only citing economic figures, but also including human living conditions.

“We were some of the first in the world to prepare cost curves for how changing energy, agricultural, and other sectors would affect the developing countries. And it was always done in close cooperation with the countries themselves. It’s important to find solutions that are in their best interest. If a large part of the population doesn’t have access to energy and lives on the poverty line, climate becomes a luxury problem,” she points out.

Kirsten Halsnæs does not believe that the climate battle can be won by government ministries or top summits of world’s leaders.

“Instead of becoming entrenched in the great political debate predicting the end of the world with tipping points and other theoretical speculation, I think we should keep the conversation grounded and focus on what people can do themselves through their work and daily life. It is dialogue and practical solutions that can make a real difference in the world.”

Author of IPCC reports

Since 1993, Kirsten Halsnæs has been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's inner circle as the author of the IPCC’s chapters on the financial consequences of climate change. But she does not share the gloom that often characterizes the climate debate:

“I’m not a pessimist—I see a lot of positive signs—e.g. the introduction of various forms of renewable energy has happened much faster than expected. I also think the new major economies such as China and India have realized that it is possible to make money from sustainable energy technologies, and this is something that will really have a major impact.

Kirsten shared in the Nobel Peace Prize which the IPCC received in 2007, and feels that she has benefited greatly from being on the panel.

“It’s been extremely inspiring to work with the best researchers from all over the world—several of them have become close personal friends of mine. And I’ve met many people who share my point of view—that it’s down to cooperation, rather than dictating solutions. We must solve climate problems together and we should treat each other with respect. Elbowing and pushiness are the wrong approach.”

Photo: Bax Lindhardt

Men’s club

During the first years of the IPCC, Kirsten was the only woman in the 80-strong men’s club. It had certain advantages—men held the doors open for her and there was always room in the ladies’ toilet. But joking aside—as a woman, she has also encountered resistance in her daily life as a researcher at Risø and DTU, where men are in the absolute majority.

“It was understood that if you wanted to wield influence, you had to play football with your colleagues and join the men’s club. Football doesn’t interest me at all—I’d rather be at home reading a bedtime story for my children. Instead of playing their games, I’ve tried to stick to who I am and what I believe in. But I’ve probably paid a price. I have the feeling that I’ve had to work harder to achieve the same as the men.”

When colleagues went off to play football, Kirsten went home to her four children. She had the first two while she was still studying. The last two followed, with the customary maternity leave.
“Yes, it’s a woman’s fate,” notes the interviewer, and Kirsten promptly responds:

“No, it’s not our fate—it’s our joy. That’s how I see it.”

Danish Council of Ethics

Six years ago, Kirsten accepted an invitation to join the Danish Council of Ethics—again a huge social task which she sees as important—but one that is also very time-consuming. She estimates that it takes up at least two working days per month—and it is unpaid.

But for Kirsten Halsnæs it has also been important to make her voice heard in this context. Among other things, she has chaired the working group on prioritization in the healthcare sector—not an immediate choice for an economist with an MSc thesis in climate and energy. Nevertheless, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the debate, imbuing it with her humanistic point of view:

“I don’t think there is a clever and simple formula for how to calculate whether funding should go to old Mrs Hansen or a kidney patient. That’s too simplistic. Instead we looked at some specific examples of unfair prioritization in the healthcare sector, where areas such as mental health services and the disabling lung disease COPD are detrimentally affected.”

Stubbornness and Inuit kayak rolls

After the children left home, Kirsten became a keen kayaker. She thinks it is wonderful to head out to Lake Furesø and feel the wind in her face—even a small storm cannot keep her at home.
She is also happy to compete in K2 and has focused hard on learning how to roll a kayak in the water just like an Inuit. It turned out to be annoyingly difficult, but Kirsten is not the kind to give up when she has set her sights on something. Especially when the goal is taking part in the rowing club’s ‘New Year’s kayak roll’—normally the preserve of male members.

So for the whole of autumn 2017, she trained hard and on New Year's Eve Day she bravely turned up with the men.

“I was worried I’d get too nervous, but I managed to prove that women can actually do the roll too.”


Photo: Bax Lindhardt

Kirsten Halsnæs is 62 years old and lives in Ballerup, Denmark. She has four children aged between 27 and 38— and three grandchildren. 

2013: Professor at DTU Management

2013: Member of the Danish Council of Ethics

2007: Received Landsforeningen Levende Havs Skrubbepris (the National Sea Life Association Flounder Award) for her insistence on involving the public in the environmental debate

2007: Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with the rest of the IPCC Panel and Al Gore

2008: Appointed head of Climate DTU

1997: PhD from Roskilde University, Denmark

1993- : Lead author and coordinating main author in the UN’s climate panel—IPCC

1992–1992: Employed in the UNEP Risø Centre, Denmark

1987-1992: Employed in the Department of System Analysis at Risø National Laboratory, Denmark

1983: Employed on the economic/statistical office in the Ministry of Transport, Building and Housing

1983: MSc in Economics from University of Copenhagen

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