Will Steffen

House of Representatives, 8 February 2023

I rise to speak about one of Australia's greatest climate scientists, the late Professor Will Steffen who died at the end of January aged 75. Will Steffen was born in Norfolk, Nebraska, and trained as a chemist at the University of Missouri before getting his PhD at the University of Florida in 1975. He came to Australia with his wife, Carrie, in the late 1970s after a detour working for the Peace Corps in rural Fiji. He did a post-doc at ANU and then joined the CSIRO as an editor and information officer.

He quickly became one of the leaders in the emerging field of geosphere-biosphere analysis. He helped to bring together disparate fields of ecology, biology, oceanography and climate research into a larger study of earth system science. He moved to Stockholm from 1998 to 2004 as executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and then, when he returned to Australia, quickly became an adviser to the federal government on issues of climate. He became director of the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society and the inaugural director of the ANU Climate Change Institute.

Australians came to know him best as a foundation member of the Australian Climate Commission, which was dissolved, as he put it, within what seemed like hours of the election of the Abbott government in 2013. In response, Will Steffen and his fellow commissioners Tim Flannery, Lesley Hughes and Amanda McKenzie launched a crowdfunding campaign, raising more than $1 million in a single week, enabling them to set up the Climate Council.

As a researcher, he was a significant advocate of the concept of the Anthropocene—the idea that humanity has entered a new geological age. He is known for a 2009 paper, 'A safe operating space for humanity', with Johan Rockström and others, which was published in Nature and introduced the concept of planetary boundaries. He and his co-authors identified nine planetary-scale processes that regulate the stability of the Earth's system. That later turned from a paper in Nature to a documentary on Netflix narrated by David Attenborough, brilliantly illustrating the way in which Will Steffen was at the forefront of science and the forefront of science communication.

He continued to appear regularly in the media, where he was always willing to take on climate change deniers. I recall a forum at the Canberra Labor Club in Belconnen in which he talked calmly about the science and the importance of acting on climate change. That earned him vitriol on social media and a number of death threats, but he was undeterred and continued to speak out about the concerns that he had for the planet's future, presenting the scientific data rigorously and calmly in a jargon-free way in which Australians could understand it.

He was a keen Canberran. I mentioned just now the way in which he engaged in the local Belconnen forum. He was always speaking at local Canberra forums and loved his adopted city. He co-founded the Canberra Urban and Regional Futures initiative in 2010, and he said of it:

How we design, build and live in cities of the 21st century is a daunting research challenge. What better place to start meeting this challenge than in our own city and region? And what better way to build the required knowledge than through collaboration among our region's research institutions.

He was concerned about the need for acting and concerned that the risks didn't sit equally on the sides of acting too fast and acting too slowly. As he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2018, discussing tipping points:

Maybe we have 20 to 25 years and then we might be committed to losing Greenland. But the time we have left to intervene to stabilise coral reefs, for example, is a lot less than 30 years.

He concluded:

To err on the side of danger is a stupid thing to do.

He was extraordinarily generous to me as a member of parliament and as an author. When I wrote a book called What's the Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics, it included a chapter on climate change. I sent the chapter through in draft form to Will Steffen. He came back very speedily with a series of line edits which were generous, incisive and detailed, and I dealt with all of his suggestions and produced a better book as a result—though, I'm sure, not as good a book as Will Steffen would have written if he'd been writing on the same topic.

He was a keen outdoorsman. He enjoyed trekking and hiking, from the Himalayas to the wildest parts of Australia. He carried out extreme ascents in the New Zealand Southern Alps and the Canadian Rockies and was part of a 1998 ANU Mountaineering Club expedition to climb the 7,000-metre Mount Baruntse in Nepal. He wrote the definitive history of Australian Himalayan climbing, Himalayan Dreaming. Here I'm indebted to an article by Carrie Steffen, John Finnigan and David Finnigan which ran in the Fairfax papers, in which they quoted Will Steffen as saying:

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.

His wife of 51 years, Carrie Steffen, said:

He was a wonderful, kind and passionate man and he was the same as a husband. He was the most marvellous companion and the best dinner companion I would ever have, and ever will have. He brought the world to me.

I offer my particular condolences to Carrie and to Will and Carrie's daughter, Sonja. Will Steffen was a remarkable Australian, an extraordinary Canberran and a citizen of the world, and we're lucky to have had his contribution on climate change and on helping to shape a better planet.

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  • Andrew Leigh Mp
    published this page in What's New 2023-02-08 15:08:38 +1100

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