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.

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Publications by Steffen, Will