James J. McCarthy — Global Scientist ~ Global Citizen


A leading global scientist and global citizen has died, leaving a lasting legacy that serves as a model for principled, humane public service.  As an active member of the Harvard faculty James J. McCarthy was esteemed by colleagues and students alike for his abundant, tireless and generous contributions to Harvard’s life over several decades.  A public memorial service planned for the Harvard Memorial Church in Harvard Yard is expected to gather colleagues, friends and admirers from across the country and around the world.  Beyond Harvard, citizens of Cambridge have expressed their sorrow and sadness and warm appreciation for his life and work.


YouTube Version

And well beyond both Harvard and Cambridge, public figures who benefited from his insights and extended tutoring have been among the first to acknowledge their enormous debt to Jim McCarthy over the years.

James J. McCarthy was a distinguished biological oceanographer who was honored by his fellow scientists with the award of the Tyler Prize for environmental achievement in 2018.  After receiving the award Jim was interviewed by Steve Curwood as part of the award-winning Living on Earth program series.  In the interview Jim elaborated some of the reasons of how he became interested in the field of biological oceanography and how his work came to the sudden attention of the nation as a whole through a front-page story on a trip he made to the North Pole.

jim mccarthy loe

The Tyler Prize award committee also published an extended interview with Professor McCarthy when they awarded the prize:


and in emphasized Professor McCarthy’s achievements over the years that made him particularly qualified of their recognition.  Professor McCarthy’s discussion with scientists upon receiving the  Tyler Award  at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conveys a sense of the importance of climate science to the formulation of public policy:

The Tyler Prize Committee’s summary statement about the award which he shared in 2018 with Dr. Paul Falkowski underscores his achievements.

James J. McCarthy is recognized for his pioneering research on marine nutrient cycles, his significant additions to our understanding of human activity on Earth’s climate, and his contributions to informed policy discussions on climate change.

His service to organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, as well as his authorship of the Arctic Climate and Northeast Climate Impact assessments, have uniquely informed and shaped the international discourse on environmental science policy.


Other tributes from his colleagues at Harvard and scientists across the country were evident in a recent series of “conversations” with Jim McCarthy during October of 2019:

Beyond his individual achievements as a seminal thinker in the field of biological oceanography, Professor McCarthy served as a key figure in the largest international collaboration of scientists ever convened in human history.  He was the lead participant and principal coordinating co-author in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where he oversaw and coordinated the publication of  The Assessment Report” (TAR):


In large part it was for this report and the extraordinary international coordination of research that it represented that the IPCC was named as a co-recipient — along with Al Gore — of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.


Professor McCarthy — who played such an important role in coordinating the publication of The IPCC’s “Assessment Report” of 2001 — enjoyed a moment with the Nobel Peace Prize medal in Oslo as it was being awarded jointly to the IPCC and Al Gore in 2007.

In addition to his regular teaching obligations, Professor McCarthy served as the Head Tutor for the undergraduate concentration at Harvard in “Environmental Science and Public Policy” — a program which he helped to create.  Beyond this he regularly addressed the entire Harvard community in public fora devoted to discussing climate change and its public policy implications.  He frequently asked the uncomfortable questions, challenging the Harvard community and the wider world to confront the seriousness of our moment and role in the evolution of the global ecosystem.  His seminal 2009 article – “Reflections On: Our Planet and Its Life, Origins, and Futures” — which appeared in Science Magazine was an example of his probing and challenging mind in this regard as were all of his public talks offered to all on the Harvard campus:


His “civic contributions” to the Harvard community extended well beyond his realm of biological oceanography.   He served for many years at the Director of the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and  for 13 years he and his wife, Sue, shared the role of being Master of  Harvard’s Pforzheimer House — the second longest tenure in that role of Mastership in Harvard’s history.

Beyond these official positions and important tasks within Harvard’s formal teaching and administrative structures, Professor McCarthy played an important strategic role at a crucial juncture of the Harvard faculty’s confrontation with its former President, Lawrence Summers.  After suffering repeated criticism and formal votes of no-confidence on the part of the Harvard Faculty, President Summers refused initially to step down from the Presidency, citing his continued support from Harvard’s Board of Overseers where Robert Rubin — the Wall Street financier and former Secretary of the Treasury — appears to have played an important role.

As the “standoff” between the Harvard Faculty and President Summers continued, Professor McCarthy wrote a short, but highly consequential open letter to The Boston Globe, calling upon the Board of Overseers to pay attention to the enduring crisis and intervene to examine Lawrence Summer’s continued role.  Soon thereafter, in early 2006, shortly before yet another no-confidence vote from the faculty the world learned:


In other respects, Professor McCarthy expressed his “civic duty” beyond Harvard and beyond his own discipline in many and varied ways.  In addition to his exceptional work in mobilizing the international scientific community to provide information and insight to government officials around the world, Professor McCarthy contributed tirelessly for over a decade to teaching through “Harvard’s Night School” — the Harvard Extension School.


Moreover he appeared frequently in Washington, D. C. to testify to Congress on the importance of devising a rational climate policy.


Professor James J. McCarthy testifying before the United States Congress on climate science and the need for effective public policy to combat climate change.

Beyond these efforts to coordinate and extend the work of fellow scientists and make it accessible to both policy makers and future generations of a wide variety of students, Jim McCarthy reached out to communities rarely approached by his fellow scientists.  Upon stepping down from his role as Master of Pforsheimer House at Harvard the Charles J. Wells, a Staff Writer, for the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, recorded: “…McCarthy will take a sabbatical during which he will work on a book, develop a new General Education course, and research the intersection of religion and science.” [emphasis added].

It is not known whether Professor McCarthy had the chance to develop this research further, but it is clear that he had reached out over the years in a very courageous manner to speak with climate denialists within the evangelical religions traditions.


Because of his longstanding contributions to Earth science and his continued commitment to reaching out to political leaders, and diverse communities of concerned citizens across the country and around the world, Professor McCarthy’s work was repeatedly presented and fully documented for students to consider through the online course on the ethics of environmental sustainability offered over seventeen years through the Harvard Extension School: 


For is insight and inspiration as a global scientist and global citizen Professor James J. McCarthy will be dearly missed by colleagues, students, friends and the entire human community.

* * * *

It is a particularly poignant irony that in the week of his death, much of what he inspired thousands of scientists to achieve seems to have been swept aside by short-sighted governmental leaders beholden to the fossil fuel industries around the world:

Concerning Professor McCarthy’s work, see related:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s