We've lost a giant: Vale Professor Will Steffen, climate science pioneer

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One of Australia’s leading climate scientists, Professor Will Steffen, died on Sunday. Steffen has been hailed as a brilliant climate thinker, selfless mentor and gifted communicator. He is survived by his wife Carrie and daughter Sonja. Steffen’s colleagues and friends remember him here.

John Finnigan - Honorary Fellow, CSIRO

The last time I talked to Will was in early January. We had a drink or two before I left for a few weeks work in the United States. He was looking forward with optimism to an operation to get rid of the cancer he had dealt with for a year so he could get on with his life. Unfortunately, there were complications.

The world has lost an enormously influential environmental scientist. And I’ve lost a very dear friend.

Will Steffen and I were close friends for more than 40 years. I came from England to Canberra in the 1970s, and Will came from the US. At that time, it seemed like everyone in Canberra was from somewhere else. As a result, we formed a kind of family. We’d look after each other’s children, or do babysitting so the others could go cross-country skiing. Will and his wife Carrie looked after our kids and we looked after theirs.

I was a scientist at CSIRO when Will joined us as an editor and information officer. Very soon, his obvious scientific intelligence meant he was headhunted to the nascent International Geosphere Biosphere Program, an international consortium of scientists. This was the early 1980s, when the field now known as Earth system science was just taking off. Will proved enormously effective, not just as a manager but as a synthesiser and broadcaster of his group’s ideas.

Many of those ideas are now mainstream but back then, they were radical. Ideas such as the Great Acceleration – the sudden increase in our impact on the environment since the 1950s, brought about by trends such as spiking fossil fuel use, and population growth.

After Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed that the world had entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, Will ran with the concept. He helped popularise the idea that our collective activity is now a force as potent as natural forces in shaping our planet.


Read more: Dawn of the Anthropocene: five ways we know humans have triggered a new geological epoch


Will was also a skilled rock and ice climber who climbed mountains all over the world. In 1988 he was part of the ANU expedition which climbed Nepal’s 7,162 metre Mount Baruntse, an icy spire east of Everest. Of his climbing, Will once said:

Climbing is like science. To get up a hard rock or ice climb, just like when you’re solving a problem in the carbon cycle, you have to be ultra-focused, you have to make holistic decisions and you have to be absolutely aware of your surroundings. When you come off a big climb, you really appreciate the beauty of what’s around you. That’s the buzz you get in science when you solve a big problem and suddenly see how it all fits together.

In the best of ways, Will could also be a stubborn bugger. He refused to let things defeat him – whether on the mountain or taking on climate deniers. On the latter, he was never accommodating. And he’d never fall for their leading questions. He knew how easy it was to edit an interview to twist his words and was smart enough to insist interviews were live.

I remember one interview where he was asked if he accepted carbon dioxide was good for humanity. I might have made the mistake of saying “yes, at certain levels”. But Will knew how to avoid those traps. He said something like: “No. That’s the wrong way to think of it.” He never got boxed in.

During the decade of political climate wars in Australia, Will got a lot of abuse on social media. At one stage, his office at the Australian National University had to be locked down due to death threats. It didn’t stop him.

Steffen shrugged off the social media abuse he copped during the political climate wars. Alan Porritt
Steffen shrugged off the social media abuse he copped during the political climate wars. Alan Porritt

He never saw deniers or obstructionist politicians as his personal enemies. He didn’t waste his time on the negativity of climate politics. While he was angry at the way the selfish actions of vested interests were sacrificing the future of coming generations, including his daughter, Sonja, he did not despair. Instead, he channelled his anger into action.

When the Abbott government shut down the Climate Commission in 2013, Will and his colleagues – Tim Flannery, Lesley Hughes and Amanda McKenzie – didn’t just quit. Instead they crowd-sourced A$1 million in a week and founded the Climate Council, now a leading independent source of climate advice in Australia.

As well as a hugely influential scientist, Will was a really nice bloke and a true friend. He was calm, not confrontational. He had a wry sense of humour and could see the funny side, even when the climate politics were crazy.

Would he have been happy about recent efforts to speed up action on climate change? Yes and no.

He felt, as I do, that things are much further advanced and much worse than generally recognised. He felt limiting global warming to 1.5℃ was already well out of reach and that it was going to be very difficult to keep it under 2℃.

While he was heartened by recent progress, he knew it was all but impossible to change fast enough to keep warming to a safer level. But he knew we had to try.


Read more: Australia's stumbling, last-minute dash for climate respectability doesn't negate a decade of abject failure


Steffen knew keeping warming to a safe level was all but impossible – but he knew we had to try. Dave Hunt/AAP
Steffen knew keeping warming to a safe level was all but impossible – but he knew we had to try. Dave Hunt/AAP

Pep Canadell - Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO

Will Steffen took global environmental research to a whole new level.

Beginning when fax machines were the main tool to communicate across multiple time zones, Will developed unparalleled skill in scientific diplomacy and leadership. His work helped create research networks across the world involving tens of thousands of scientists.

In the 1980s, environmental research labs and individual scientists were mostly still working on their own. The new scientific networks spurred on by Will’s brokering made globally coordinated research possible. This was necessary to understand the planetary changes caused by human activity.

Will achieved this global impact through positions such as executive director of the highly influential International Geosphere Biosphere Program (IGBP). His most powerful tools were his never-ending appetite for the very latest science, his kind nature and genuine people skills, his focus and hard work ethic, and his exceptional communication abilities which let him convey the gravity of complex problems and the need for immediate action.

I came to Australia in the late 1990s to take the job Will had left when he moved to Sweden to become the director of the IGBP. I was never able to fill his shoes. But I have tried, with colleagues, to build on his work in bringing together many strands of research.

Will was a visionary in many ways. He understood the environmental problems we were trying to solve spanned many academic disciplines and were deeply interconnected. Few people had his ability to absorb so many diverse types of science and to work with the diverse research communities whose expertise was urgently needed as part of the solutions.

Steve Lade - ARC Future Fellow, Australian National University

I first encountered Will during one of his talks in Canberra. He was an incredible public speaker and a role model for how a scientific specialist could broaden themselves into a holistic thinker on the most important topics imaginable. Hearing him as a PhD student changed the direction of my career.

My scientific interactions with Will began in the mid-2010s as a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where he was a frequent visitor. Will had recently co-developed the planetary boundaries framework, now one of the most influential ideas in sustainability science.

These boundaries show us the environment is not boundless and elastic, able to absorb all that we throw at it or take from it. Our planet has limits – and if we push too far, we will break something, leading to dramatic changes to the only life-bearing planet we know of.

Planetary boundaries are just one of his discipline-changing contributions to sustainability science - others include co-developing the concept of the Great Acceleration and promoting the concept of the Anthropocene. His ideas were grounded in his view of the Earth as a complex, interconnected, evolving system.

Viewing the world in this way helps us understand what we have done to our environment – and how to begin fixing the problems.

Will’s scientific, policy and advocacy efforts were directed at helping us recognise our role as planet-shapers. He knew we must transform our mindset from exploitation to stewardship if we, and our planet as we know it, are to survive.

His career is an exemplar of how to be an interdisciplinary, inclusive, caring and socially responsible sustainability scientist. Let us continue his legacy.


Read more: 'Failure is not an option': after a lost decade on climate action, the 2020s offer one last chance


This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: John Finnigan, CSIRO; Pep Canadell, CSIRO, and Steven J Lade, Stockholm University.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.