Will Steffen, ‘courageous’ climate scientist, dies in Canberra aged 75.
I am filled with grief at losing my friend at a time when we need his calm, direct voice more than ever
My emotions stem not only from the grief of losing Will Steffen but also from grief over what we have already lost to insufficient action on climate change.
This week science lost one of its greatest Earth system experts, Australia lost a skilled, passionate communicator of climate science and the world lost a humble soul of the highest humanity, kindness and integrity. As did scores of others, I lost a colleague and friend when Will Steffen left us on Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
It is impossible to overstate Will’s impact on science. The many tributes to his work can only scratch the surface of his legacy. He led the effort to map the Great Acceleration of human impact on the physical and biological systems of our planet, culminating in consideration of the geological age of humans – the Anthropocene, first proposed by Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen.
With colleagues, Will catalogued Earth’s tipping elements and their alarming trend of moving to transgress boundary conditions beyond which human ability to slow climate change would be ineffectual. He built the scientific case for Planetary Boundaries with Johan Rockström. For decades Will led vast international research teams, trained students, mentored colleagues, advised governments and courts, communicated clearly to civil society, wrote innumerable reports and connected with those at the coal face of climate change. He dared to ask the question: “Where on Earth are we going?”
I am filled with grief at losing Will at a time when we need his calm, direct voice more than ever. It is natural that I’m angry and fearful, emotions born of grief. But my emotions stem not only from the grief of losing Will but also from grief over what we have already lost to insufficient action on climate change, and what we stand to lose if we continue on the path of tepid and ineffectual posturing, greenwashing and half measures. I’m angry about the same things that made Will angry. And fearful of the same things that made him apprehensive. These are Will’s words in 2020 when asked what he felt when thinking about climate change:
As the climate system continues to spiral towards a potentially uncontrollable state, I am struck with an increasing sense of both anger and apprehension. I’m angry because the lack of effective action on climate change, despite the wealth not of only scientific information but also of solutions to reduce emissions, has now created a climate emergency. The students are right. Their future is now being threatened by the greed of the wealthy fossil fuel elite, the lies of the Murdoch press, and the weakness of our political leaders. These people have no right to destroy my daughter’s future and that of her generation.
I’m apprehensive because the more we learn about climate change, the riskier it looks. Even at a 1 degree C rise in global temperature, extreme weather events are becoming more violent and dangerous than models have predicted. Over the last 5 years, our knowledge of tipping points in the Earth System has advanced rapidly, with many already showing signs of instability. Worse yet, they can interact like a row of dominoes to set off a tipping cascade, driving the Earth to hotter and more unstable conditions. That is my worst fear – that we may reach a ‘point of no return’ where we commit our children to a future of hell on Earth.
You would have been unlikely to directly experience Will’s anger and fears about climate change and environmental destruction because he transformed those emotions into constructive research, communication and, most of all, personal and collective action.
Let part of his enormous legacy be that we do the same, with the same clarity of purpose, determination and humanity that Will displayed. Let that be how we honour and offer our gratitude to my dear friend Will Steffen, an incomparable champion for planet Earth and all that is nurtured by it.
Dr Penny D Sackett is a distinguished honorary professor at the Australian National University Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions and a former chief scientist for Australia. As members of the Australian Capital Territory’s Climate Change Council, she and Steffen collaborated to produce scientific targets for emissions reduction in the ACT, which were adopted by the territory government.
This obituary was first published in The Guardian of Feb 1st 2023.