Will Steffen fought passionately for our planet. To honor him we must follow his plan Penny Sackett

tHis science week lost one of the Earth system’s greatest experts, Australia lost a skilled and passionate expert in climate science communication, and the world lost a humble spirit of the highest humanity, kindness, and integrity. Like dozens of others have, I lost a colleague and friend when Will Stephen left us on Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

It is impossible to overestimate Will’s influence on science. The many tributes to his work can only scratch the surface of his legacy. He led efforts to map the great acceleration of human impact on our planet’s physical and biological systems, culminating in the consideration of the geological age of man – the Anthropocene, first proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen.

Weil and his colleagues catalog the elements of Earth’s inversion and its alarming tendency to move beyond boundary conditions beyond which human capacity to slow climate change becomes ineffective. He built the scientific case for planetary boundaries with Johan Rockström. For decades, Weil has led huge international research teams, coached students, mentored colleagues, advised governments and courts, outspokenly informed civil society, written countless reports, and connected with those in the face of climate change. He dared to ask, “Where on Earth are we going?”

I mourn Will’s loss at a time when we need his calm, direct voice more than ever. It is normal for me to be angry and afraid, emotions born of grief. But my feelings stem not only from the grief of loss of will but also from grief over what we have already lost through insufficient action on climate change, and what we may lose if we continue down the path of half-hearted and ineffective attitudes, greenwashing and the other half. Sizes.

I’m angry about the same things that made Will angry. And he is afraid of the same things that made him afraid.

These are Will’s words in 2020 when asked what it felt like to think about climate change:

As the climate system continued to slide into an uncontrollable state, a growing sense of anger and apprehension hit me. I am angry that the lack of effective action on climate change, despite the wealth not only of scientific information but also of solutions to reduce emissions, has now resulted in a climate emergency. The students are right. Their future is now threatened by the fossil fuel greed of the wealthy elite, the lies of the Murdoch press, and the weakness of our political leaders. These people have no right to destroy my daughter’s future and the future of her generation.

I’m apprehensive because the more we know about climate change, the more serious it seems. Even at a 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, extreme weather events are becoming more violent and dangerous than models predicted. Over the past five years, our knowledge of turning points in the Earth system has advanced rapidly, with many already showing signs of instability. Even worse, they could interact like a row of dominoes to set off a volatile chain, driving Earth into hotter and more stable conditions. This is my worst fear – that we may reach a “point of no return” where we commit our children to a future of hell on earth.

It is unlikely that you will directly feel Will’s anger and concerns about climate change and environmental devastation because he has channeled those feelings into constructive research, communication, and most of all, personal and group work.

Let part of his formidable legacy be that we do the same, with the same clarity of purpose, determination and humanity that Will demonstrated. Let this be how we honor and extend our gratitude to my dear friend Will Stephen, an incomparable champion for planet Earth and all that she cares for.

Dr Penny de Sackett is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions and former Chief Scientist for Australia. As members of the Australian Capital Territory Climate Change Council, she and Stephen collaborated to set scientific targets for emissions reduction for the Australian Capital Territory, which have been adopted by the territorial government

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