Vale Professor Will Steffen, climate science pioneer
One of Australia’s leading climate scientists, Professor Will Steffen, died on Sunday. Steffen was considered a leading 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 Professor Will Steffen in 2008. AAP
The last time I spoke to Will was in early January. We had a drink or two before I left for a few weeks in the States. He looked forward with optimism to an operation to get rid of the cancer he had been dealing with for a year so he could get on with his life. Unfortunately, there were complications.
The world has lost an extremely influential environmental scientist. And I lost a very dear friend.
Will Steffen and I were close friends for over 40 years. I came to Canberra from England 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 looked after each other’s children, or babysat so that the other could go cross country. Will and his wife Carrie took care of our children and we took care of theirs.
I was a scientist at CSIRO when Will joined us as an editor and information officer. Very soon his obvious scientific intelligence meant that he was headhunted to the nascent International Geosphere Biosphere Program, an international consortium of scientists. It was the early 1980s, when the field now known as Earth System Science was just beginning to take off. Will was very effective, not only as a manager, but as a synthesizer and transmitter of his group’s ideas.
Many of those ideas are now mainstream, but at the time they were radical. Ideas like the Great Acceleration – the sudden increase in our impact on the environment since the 1950s, brought about by trends such as sharp 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 popularize the idea that our collective activity is now a force as strong as natural forces in shaping our planet.
Read more: Dawn of the Anthropocene: five ways we know humans caused a new geological epoch
Steffen helped popularize the idea of the Anthropocene. Dan Peled/AAP
Will was also an accomplished rock and ice climber who climbed mountains all over the world. In 1988, he was part of the ANU expedition that climbed Nepal’s 7,162 meter Mount Baruntse, an icy peak east of Everest. Of his climb, Will once said:
Climbing is like science. Climbing hard rock or ice, just like 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 down a big climb, you really appreciate the beauty of what’s around you. It’s the buzz you get in science when you solve a big problem and suddenly see how everything fits together.
In the best of ways, Will can also be a stubborn jerk. He refused to let things defeat him – whether on the mountain or climate deniers. On the latter he was never accommodating. And he would 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 that interviews were live.
I remember one interview where he was asked if he accepted that carbon dioxide was good for humanity. I may have made the mistake of saying “yes, on certain levels”. But Will knew how to avoid those traps. He said something like, “No. That’s the wrong way to think about it.” He never boxed.
During the decade of political climate wars in Australia, Will received a lot of abuse on social media. His office at the Australian National University had to be closed at one stage due to death threats. It didn’t stop him.
Steffen shrugged off the social media abuse he dealt with during the political climate wars. Alan Porritt
He never saw naysayers 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 had sacrificed the future of generations to come, including his daughter, Sonja, he did not become discouraged. Instead, he channeled his anger into action.
When the Abbott government closed the Climate Commission in 2013, Will and his colleagues – Tim Flannery, Lesley Hughes and Amanda McKenzie – didn’t just stop. Instead, they raised A$1 million within a week and founded the Climate Council, now a leading independent source of climate advice in Australia.
As well as being a hugely influential scientist, Will was a really nice guy and a true friend. He was calm, not confrontational. He had a wry sense of humor 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, like me, that things had progressed much further and were much worse than was generally acknowledged. He felt that limiting global warming to 1.5℃ was already far out of reach and that it would be very difficult to keep it below 2℃.
While encouraged by recent progress, he knew it was nearly impossible to change quickly enough to keep warming to a safer level. But he knew we had to try.
Read more: Australia’s stumbling, last-minute push for climate resilience doesn’t negate a decade of abject failure
Steffen knew that keeping warming at a safe level was all but impossible – but he knew we had to try. Dave Hunt/AAP Pep Canadell – Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO
Will Steffen has taken global environmental research to a whole new level.
Beginning when fax machines were the primary tool for communicating across multiple time zones, Will developed unparalleled skill in scientific diplomacy and leadership. His work helped create research networks around the world involving tens of thousands of scientists.
In the 1980s, environmental research laboratories and individual scientists mostly still worked on their own. The new scientific networks spurred by Will’s brokers made globally coordinated research possible. It 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 have been his never-ending appetite for the very latest science, his friendly nature and genuine people skills, his focus and hard work ethic, and his exceptional communication skills that convey to him the seriousness of complex problems and the need for immediacy. action.
I came to Australia in the late 1990s to take the job that Will left when he moved to Sweden to become the director of the IGBP. I could never fill his shoes. But I tried to build on his work with colleagues by bringing together many research directions.
Will was a visionary in many ways. He understood that the environmental problems we were trying to solve spanned many academic disciplines and were deeply interconnected. Few people have had his ability to absorb so many diverse types of science and to collaborate with the diverse research communities whose expertise is 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 subjects 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 Center, where he was a frequent visitor. Will 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 everything we throw at it or take from it. Our planet has limits – and if we push too far, we’ll break something, leading to dramatic changes to the only life-bearing planet we know of.
Planetary boundaries is just one of his discipline-changing contributions to sustainability science – others include co-developing the concept of the Great Acceleration and advancing 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 to understand what we have done to our environment – and how to start solving the problems.
Will’s scientific, policy and advocacy efforts have been directed at helping us recognize our role as planet shapers. He knew we had to change our mindset from exploitation to stewardship if we, and our planet as we know it, were to survive.
His career is an example 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 a last chance