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In Memoriam: James McCarthy, Trailblazing Climate Scientist and Communicator

James McCarthy, winner of the 2018 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, poses with Rosina Bierbaum, a member of the prize's executive committee. | Courtesy of the Tyler Prize

James McCarthy, a biological oceanographer, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and beloved leader in the scientific community’s efforts to communicate the urgency of climate change, died Dec. 11 after a years-long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was 75.

McCarthy grew up in Sweet Home, Ore., received a bachelor’s in biology from Gonzaga University in 1966 and earned a Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1971. In a research career spanning five decades, including 45 years at Harvard University, McCarthy scoured the world’s oceans for insights regarding their biological and physical processes. He studied plankton’s role in providing ecosystems with nitrogen, monsoons in the Arabian Sea and El Niño events in the equatorial Pacific.

Ultimately, McCarthy’s research showed that global flows of chemicals — biogeochemical cycles — are being disrupted by human activities.

“The idea that humans can affect the global cycles was truly a revolutionary breakthrough,” said Rosina Bierbaum, an environmental science and policy professor at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland and member of the AAAS Board of Directors, who served on the U.S. President’s Council on Science and Technology from 2009 to 2017. “These insights have played a significant role in the call for action on climate change. They have transformed our view of humans as passengers on Earth to drivers of Earth’s cycles.”

McCarthy’s contributions to science policy and public understanding of humanity’s impact on our planet’s natural systems, though, extend far beyond his own research. He co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1997 to 2001, served as lead author of the 2005 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and was a scientific adviser in the production of Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” When the IPCC and Gore received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007, McCarthy was part of the delegation that traveled to Oslo to accept the award.

After founding Global Biogeochemical Cycles, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union, and becoming its first editor, from 1987 to 1989, McCarthy was elected to a one-year term as president of AAAS in 2008 and board chair in 2009, and served as board chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists from 2009 to 2015. He received the Boston Museum of Science’s Walker Prize for research and science communication in 2008 and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2018.

“Jim McCarthy was both a great citizen of science and a scientist citizen,” said Alan Leshner, interim CEO of AAAS. “As AAAS president, he led an array of activities to increase policymakers’ and public understanding of the issues surrounding climate change and helped focus the organization on both advancing science and serving society.”

McCarthy was also a cherished mentor, serving for years as the head tutor of Harvard’s Environmental Science and Public Policy concentration and, with his wife, Sue, sharing a residence hall with roughly 400 students as faculty dean of the university’s Pforzheimer House.

Those who worked with McCarthy remarked on his charisma and warmth.

“Perhaps the best thing about Jim was his interest in others, his caring way of talking with colleagues,” said Tiffany Lohwater, chief communications officer at AAAS. “When I would see him, he would inevitably be wearing an item of clothing that featured marine animals — a polar bear tie, penguin cufflinks — very stylishly, of course, that provided him an opportunity to strike up a conversation.”

“There are many days when I feel like the luckiest person in the world, and the reason is I have spectacular colleagues,” said Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, at a September event honoring McCarthy that was covered by the Harvard Gazette. “Jim McCarthy is dear and special to me. My entire time at Harvard he has been a mentor and a steady presence.”

After his term as AAAS president, McCarthy stayed active in the organization’s communication and policy work. He co-chaired the advisory committee of What We Know, an initiative dedicated to ensuring that three “R’s” of climate change — reality, risk and response — are clearly presented to the public. He then helped fund and secure additional support for this year’s How We Respond initiative, a follow-up to What We Know that focuses on actions being taken by communities across the U.S. to combat the effects of climate change.

Even as one of the most prominent voices in the conversation around impending environmental catastrophe, McCarthy remained positive and hopeful.

“I think it’s a very different statement about peace,” he told the Boston Globe after the IPCC received the Nobel Prize. “It’s a realization that if we really internalize and act on this statement about climate change, the world will be a more peaceful place.”

“This is the generation that will make a difference,” he added. “I’m very optimistic.”

McCarthy is survived by Sue and their two sons, Jamie and Ryan.


[Associated image: Courtesy of the Tyler Prize]