Tribute to Emeritus Professor Will Steffen

Photo: ANU
1 February 2023

Emeritus Professor Will Steffen, 75, was a brilliant scientist of international standing, respected around the world. He contributed a massive lifetime commitment to the environment and climate science. Will was a mentor, colleague and collaborator to many and had a special skill in sharing his deep understanding of climate science with students, royalty, politicians, farmers, corporations and many more.

Will Steffen’s commitment and passion always shone through, and it was always evidence based. I remember attending with colleagues an annual lecture at Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2017 to a packed audience where he delivered an outstanding presentation on his pioneering work on the Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries to an enthralled audience and public acclaim. I also remember the many times he came over to the University of Canberra from ANU and shared his knowledge with students and staff and community gatherings with Canberra Urban and Regional Futures. Will Steffen was generous with his time and knowledge to all.  

Will Steffen held a wide range of distinguished leadership roles including globally as Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), based in Stockholm, and within Australia, as the Inaugural Director of the ANU Fenner School and then as Inaugural Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute. As you can see, Will was a pioneer creating innovative platforms to better connect science with policy. He shared his expertise more widely as Chair of the Antarctic Science Advisory Committee and a member of the ACT Climate Change Council. His ability to transcend these different forums in communicating climate science placed him in high demand locally, nationally and internationally.

Professor Steffen’s leadership skills extended to advising national political leaders on the critical issues of climate change, during some very challenging times. He was a member of the Climate Commission and then following its abolition, a founding member of the current non-government national Climate Change Council. Will also had the diplomatic qualities needed to explain complex systems thinking and climate science to a wide range of sectors – banks, insurance companies, corporations and NGO’s. He knew this was critical to implementing change.

As you can see from the above, Will Steffen contributed enormously and continuously to public life as he keenly understood that science needs to be shared with the community and his brilliant communication skills made that happen. In recent years he helped communities across Australia better understand climate science to enable them to tackle local and regional climate change challenges. He equally encouraged and inspired students at all levels to think through possible solutions and pathways for a more sustainable future.

Will was a great friend and mentor to me and always, despite his busy schedule, free to have a coffee in Braddon to give some wise and timely advice. I valued this immensely. He co-founded Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF) with me and was a contributing author to a suite of CURF publications on sustainable urban and regional futures for the Australian Capital Region. In this respect he had a strong belief that implementing change at home was just as important as influencing international and national agendas. He extended this generosity of spirit and collegiality to many others in the Canberra community, across Australia and around the world.

Will Steffen’s commitment to action on climate change was unwavering, often against the tide demonstrating the courage of a warrior, the intellect of a scientist and at the same time delivered with compassion and grace. He also had a great sense of humour just as you were about to walk into a serious meeting or press conference, which at times, helped a lot! A truly remarkable human being.

Our thoughts are with Will's family at this difficult time. He often spoke of his wife Carrie and daughter Sonja with great pride and clearly missed them when he had to travel far and wide. Will Steffen gave everything he had to creating a more sustainable future. He will be deeply missed by many friends and colleagues, but his legacy will continue to influence for years to come.

Emeritus Professor Barbara Norman

University of Canberra and Visiting Fellow at ICEDS