Vale Will Steffen

A reflection from Janet Salisbury

Along with many others in the climate change movement, from internationally renowned scientists and science communicators, to local community groups, I was deeply saddened to hear the news today of the death of Emeritus Professor Will Steffen.

As a science communicator in my day job, I shared interests with Will, and through my involvement with Canberra’s A Chorus of Women I was privileged to build a collaboration and friendship with him over many years.

This started in 2007 when I obtained a small Science Week grant for A Chorus of Women to present a dramatic and musical interpretation of the human predicament of climate change. At the time, political denial of climate change was very much in evidence. But public consciousness had been mightily awakened by Tim Flannery’s 2005 book The Weathermakers and Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.

The piece we presented was called ‘On the Edge of Silence’ and was inspired by the poetry and essays of Judith Wright. We crafted a series of vignettes that took the audience on a journey from an imagined catastrophic future for life on Earth, through the voices, individual stories and emotional responses of scientists, European migrants, and other Chorus women. It was interwoven with poetry, philosophy, song and dance, and ended with the silence at the ‘edge of an abyss’ and the hope, in Judith Wright’s poem ‘Silence is the rock on which I stand’, that out of that silence would come wisdom. The script, was carefully drafted to be true to the science so that scientists (who we imagined as the main audience) would feel ‘held’ and the painful ‘burden of knowledge’ they often carried alone would be shared. We invited scientists from the ANU, CSIRO and other academic and community connections to come to the presentation. Will, who was at the time the director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, quickly accepted and engaged in an email exchange with me encouraging the project and the significance of the arts to engage with emotions.

The presentation was deeply moving for the scientists who attended, including Will, who were moved to tears by the song ‘Dreaming’ by Glenda Cloughley, with Kate Champion singing the solo.

Here is the excerpt from the script ...
(you can listen to a recording here)

The prophesies about climate change are nearly unbearable. We are afraid of the future and full of regret.

Yet grief is not only about death. When longing stirs in the sorrowing heart, something new is trying to come into being.

In alchemy, the first glimmer of light comes on the darkest night.



KATE (singing)
A slender golden moon
Has mounted the black-winged night of my dream
Riding the glossy sky
She is singing the way

Wail-away people
Wax again Gaia
And the tides will be a-turning

She sings to her sister, Earth
“Are our mysteries still being kept?
Are your sparkling waters clear?
Are the forests still breathing tonight?”

And our mother, The Earth, cries back
That the trees have been taken away
And her lover The Sky is soiled
And the Songs of Love are silent

“Shine light in the dreams of the people,”
Earth cries to her sister Moon
“Fill their souls with sorrowing love for the world”
Place the Songs of Life in their hearts”

Listen people!

The Earth is singing
Gaia is dreaming still
Sing up the ancient hymn
And the tides will be a-turning

In the conversation with the audience after the presentation, Will and other scientists expressed their gratitude for us breaking the silence on their sorrow about what the climate science was telling them.

The following year (2008) the Chorus returned to Science Week with another piece called ‘Longing for Wisdom on Our Changing Climate’. This drew on Greek mythology and another source closer to home in the form of Tom Bass’s sculpture of Ethos in Civic Square (Canberra’s first public artwork) to urge a move from away from the polarising adversarial public discourse where climate change action was stuck, to dialogue and collaboration. In the conversation with the audience afterwards, Will recalled living in Sweden and the culture of constructive citizen conversation he experienced there. After the event, I shared my idea for ‘Canberra Conversations’ with Will. The idea was for A Chorus of Women to provide a safe space for constructive public discussion across different perspectives – and that the arts could play a vital role in finding common ground through our shared humanity. He immediately took up the idea, inviting us to meet him at the ANU, joining us in a grant application to the ACT Government, and starting a collaboration that lasted 6 years with some 12 public conversations on issues relating to climate change, local environmental issues and the role of the arts. Most of these conversations were held at the ACT Legislative Assembly, with me facilitating and A Chorus of Women providing artistic input through story and song. Will never waivered in his support for these events, unusual though they were in the public sphere. He brought his open-minded listening approach and razor-sharp grasp of issues to provide inspiring feedback and summing up at the end of conversations.

Will always responded to emails with great support and encouragement for any initiatives I put to him, however ‘outside the box’ they may have seemed. These included other Chorus initiatives – including our singing up of the statue of Ethos in 2011 and again in 2018; a ‘Peace on Earth – Peace with the Earth’ conversation that was part of our 5-day Festival for Peace in 2015; our Mission Climate fundraiser for the Climate Council held at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in 2016; a community ‘Wisdom Conversation’ in 2017; and more besides.

He also supported a project I was helping to hold with Honey Nelson, First Nations Elder Kevin Buzzacott and the Tent Embassy in 2020 to bring settler ‘knowledge holders’ together with First Nations Elders for ‘Deep Talks’ — to listen and share knowledge about caring for Country. In preliminary meetings I noticed the deep humility and respect that Will brought to the table, stressing that his motivation for participating was to learn from the First Nations elders. Sadly these talks were called off due to COVID,

In the past couple of years, Will also supported my founding of the Women’s Climate Congress (WCC) and provided invaluable advice on a background paper we prepared on ‘What we mean by climate security’. I last saw him over coffee in 2021 when he was urging us on to promote the role of women and the WCC to lead a change to collaborative nonpartisan action on climate change.

Through his kindness, friendship and support, Will raised me up, giving me confidence for further initiatives to challenge the status quo of public discourse, integrate the arts into advocacy and to ‘turn the tide’ on action on climate change. I felt special — but I very quickly learnt that this was not a one off: he raised up everyone he interacted with in just the same way.

Will leaves a profoundly regenerative heritage in all the people he touched with his commitments and communication gifts as well as his large contribution to climate science.