31 January 2023

Tributes flow for world-leading climate scientist Will Steffen

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Will Steffen

Will Steffen was a pioneering climate scientist. Photo: Supplied.

Leading climate scientist and ANU professor Will Steffen has died at the age of 75.

The American-born scientist and climate change researcher had an international reputation, founding the Climate Change Institute in 2008 and advising prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s multiparty climate change committee. He was an inaugural member of the Federal Government’s Climate Commission before its abolition and executive director of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute.

Professor Steffen encountered significant opposition from climate change deniers and, in 2010, received what the ANU described at the time as credible threats to his life.

His career began with an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri where he developed an interest in how whole systems function, promoting his later interest in planetary processes.

He moved to Australia to do post-doctorate research at the ANU and spent a decade at the CSIRO studying land systems.

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In 1990, he headed a project on land systems for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) and spent six years in Sweden leading the group’s research.

Back at the ANU, he became the inaugural executive director of the Climate Change Institute in 2008. His work on climate was motivated by a desire to make science accessible and understandable and to link it clearly with policy.

Always an optimist and solutions focussed, Professor Steffen was nevertheless deeply frustrated by the debate around climate change in Australia and the US.

In 2011, he likened the media discussion on climate change to reporting on whether the Earth is round.

“We don’t debate gravity. We don’t debate the tides,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. “The media is creating an enormous imbalance that’s not at all helpful for this very difficult issue.”

Professor Steffen acknowledges that he pushed boundaries by advancing concepts like the Anthropocene and tipping points for climate change.

However, he was also well qualified to do so as the leader of major international science programs, serving as the Science Adviser to the Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and Chair of the Antarctic Science Advisory Committee among other roles.

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During his time on the Climate Council, he authored, reviewed and launched multiple reports explaining the risks of climate change and scientific realities.

Professor Steffen was a longtime Canberra resident, a founding member of the ACT Climate Change Council, and was proud of the city’s role in making change.

“We were privileged to work alongside him as he fearlessly carried the beacon of climate science light during some dark political times. This was challenging work, but Will never shied away from a fight,” an obituary from the Climate Council said.

“He was greatly admired as a climate communicator, and anyone lucky enough to meet Will was always struck by how kind, caring and generous he was – both with his time and his knowledge.

“The Climate Council couldn’t be where it is today without the dedication, courage, guidance and conviction of scientists like Will Steffen.”

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