Remembering Will Steffen: A Pioneering Scientist with a Generous Spirit

Will Steffen passed away on Sunday, 29 January. A giant of a scientist, an impactful communicator, a diplomat, and a warmly remembered person. His work substantially influenced the international science community and society at large. His energy and collaborative spirit brought together the global change community across disciplines to understand and describe the changing Earth system. The Earth Commission builds on much of his work and is indebted to his legacy.

Will was Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) between 1998-2004 and played a key role in the evolution of a collection of international projects, from the Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems (GCTE), to a jigsaw of core projects that led to a broader understanding of the Earth system as an integrated system where humans played a key role. He led scientific work on the Great Acceleration and was pivotal in the development of the Anthropocene concept, the Planetary Boundaries framework and feedbacks between tipping points. His work led to the widely influential “Hothouse Earth paper of 2018. Will’s vision led to the Earth System Science Partnership, launched in 2001, which was a partnership between IGBP, IHDP, DIVERSITAS and WCRP. He dedicated much of his time to dialogue with decision makers in business and policy communicating the consequences of investments or actions, such as with the Sleeping Financial Giants Project.

Colleagues all over the world testify that he was a wonderful person to work with, a kind and generous spirit who took time to engage with young scientists and activists. He spent much of his later years communicating the gravity of the climate emergency and on the urgency to act. He was also active in the Australian Climate Council.


Words of remembrance from some of Will’s colleagues and friends in the Earth Commission:

“Will was a great friend and mentor. I worked under his leadership at the IGBP from 2000-2004, collaborating on the development of the Anthropocene concept and the Great Acceleration. He had a great talent to bring people together across disciplines and has been hugely influential in the field of Earth system science. He will be deeply missed.” – Wendy Broadgate, Director, Earth Commission, and, Director, Future Earth Global Secretariat Hub Sweden.

From The Conversation: “We’ve lost a giant: Vale Professor Will Steffen, climate science pioneer”

From The Guardian: “Will Steffen, ‘courageous’ climate scientist, dies in Canberra aged 75