1947 - 2023
Will Steffen leaves behind a legacy of exceptional research that has has greatly impacted our understanding of the Anthropocene
Will Steffen is considered the father of Earth system science and pioneering scientist. He leaves behind a legacy of exceptional research that has greatly impacted our understanding of the Anthropocene and the role of humanity within it. His ground-breaking work, which includes the great acceleration of the Anthropocene, the safe operating space for humanity, planetary stewardship, and the risk of a hothouse earth, has set the foundation for much of the work we do at the centre, and his research has already inspired several generations of centre scholars.
From chemistry to planetary boundaries
Steffen began his career as a chemical engineer. He became a research fellow at the Research School of Chemistry at ANU from 1977-1980, and later joined the CSIRO Division of Environmental Mechanics in the roles of science management, editing and communication.
In 1990 Steffen took up the position of Executive Officer for the Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems project of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP). From 1998 to 2004 he served as Executive Director of IGBP and was based in Stockholm. Steffen returned to Canberra in mid-2004 and took up a Visiting Fellowship with the Bureau of Rural Sciences, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Australian Government. A year later he joined the ANU and was the foundation director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society before serving as Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute from 2008 to 2012.
Steffen's research interests spanned a broad range within the field of Earth System science, with an emphasis on global sustainability integrating Earth and world dynamics, planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. He contributed to the ERC “Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene” project, jointly coordinated at the SRC and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).
Communicating the urgency of action
Will was not just a brilliant scientist but also a true diplomat of the scientific community, bridging gaps and fostering new partnerships among scholars from diverse disciplines. He was a kind and compassionate person who took the time to listen and share his insights and wisdom with all those he interacted with, regardless of their background or status.
He was known as a skilled communicator, delivering countless public talks and interviews to the media. In his later years, Steffen engaged with young scientists and championed the cause of climate activism, and spent much time communicating the gravity of the climate emergency. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him, but his impact on the world will endure.
News articles with Steffen, Will
General news | 2023-02-06
With Will Steffen, Earth system science has lost its father
Centre director Line Gordon and chair of the board Carl Folke look back on their time with cherished colleague Will Steffen, who recently passed away
Research news | 2019-11-01
Ten years of nine planetary boundaries
As the framework celebrates its tenth anniversary, some of the lead authors behind it look reflect on what it has achieved and what work lies ahead
Research news | 2019-10-14
Reflections on the Planetary Boundaries framework
Ten years after its launch, Johan Rockström and other researchers and stakeholders reflect on the framework's development, impact and future. See videos
Research news | 2018-11-07
Svenskt aktieägande i industrier som påverkar global klimatstabilitet
Läs forskarna Victor Galaz, Ami Golland, Beatrice Crona och Alice Dauriach's sammanställning av svenska finansaktörers koppling till den nyligen publicerade studien i Global Environmental Change.
Publications by Steffen, Will
A planetary boundary for green water
Journal / article | 2022
Green water — terrestrial precipitation, evaporation and soil moisture — is fundamental to Earth system dynamics and is now extensively perturbed by human pressures at continental to planetary scales. However, green water lacks explicit consideration in the existing planetary boundaries framework that demarcates a global safe operating space for humanity. In this Perspective, we propose a green water planetary boundary and es...
Global nutrient equity for people and the planet
Journal / article | 2021
The industrial world has converted inert soil and atmospheric nutrients into reactive fertilizer flows that endanger water quality, biodiversity and climate. Simultaneously, poor nations starve because of the shortage of these nutrients in agricultural soils. Here we propose a redistribution of accumulated nutrients to enhance food security while counteracting the current degradation of critical Earth system processes. Residue...
Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against
Journal / article | 2019
Politicians, economists and even some natural scientists have tended to assume that tipping points1 in the Earth system — such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the West Antarctic ice sheet — are of low probability and little understood. Yet evidence is mounting that these events could be more likely than was thought, have high impacts and are interconnected across different biophysical systems, potentially committing th...
Sustainable urban systems: co-design and framing for transformation
Journal / article | 2018
Rapid urbanisation generates risks and opportunities for sustainable development. Urban policy and decision makers are challenged by the complexity of cities as social–ecological–technical systems. Consequently there is an increasing need for collaborative knowledge development that supports a whole-of-system view, and transformational change at multiple scales. Such holistic urban approaches are rare in practice. A co-design ...