James McCarthy, 1944-2019

Environmentalist praised by Al Gore as ‘eloquent’ and ‘passionate’ authority on oceanic climate change 

January 9, 2020
James McCarthy, 1944-2019

An oceanographer said to have helped empower us to solve the climate crisis has died.

James McCarthy was born in Sweet Home, Oregon in 1944 and studied biology at Gonzaga University in Washington. He went on to a PhD at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California (1971) before finding work as a postdoctoral and then a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He joined Harvard University in Massachusetts as an assistant professor in 1974 and rose through the ranks to become Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography. He was also director of the renowned Museum of Comparative Zoology (1979-2002).

An enthusiastic fly fisherman in his spare time, Professor McCarthy also devoted most of his research efforts to the study of the seas. His particular expertise was on plankton and the way that nutrient controls make an impact on ocean productivity. Alongside such acclaimed specialist work, however, he was equally committed to education and activism around climate change and to the broader role of science within democratic decision-making.

At his home base at Harvard, Professor McCarthy helped launch an undergraduate degree in environmental sciences and public policy in 1993 and acted as its head tutor for much of the period between 1996 and 2012. On a much larger stage, he co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, served as lead author of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005) and as founding editor of the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles. His eminence was recognised by President Obama in 2012 when he was appointed to the US Arctic Research Commission and by his peers in 2008 when they chose him as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2018, he received the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for his technical work on phytoplankton productivity amid climate change, and his leadership in the field of science policy.

Mr Gore, a former US vice-president and climate campaigner, described Professor McCarthy as “an amazing man, a loyal friend, world-class oceanographer, a passionate advocate for science and for our climate balance. Nobody communicated the importance of the climate crisis in the context of the oceans as eloquently and passionately as Jim. His dedication to better understanding our planet through its oceans will continue to enable and empower us as activists, citizens and leaders fighting to solve this crisis.”

Professor McCarthy died of pulmonary fibrosis on 11 December and is survived by his wife Suzanne and two sons.


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