Leading Oceanographer, Climate Scientist and Science Advocate James J. McCarthy Dead at 75

Harvard Scientist Served as President of American Association for the Advancement of Science and Board Chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Dec 12, 2019

CAMBRIDGE (December 12, 2019)—The staff and board members of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) are deeply saddened by the passing of Board Chair Emeritus James J. McCarthy, who died yesterday at the age of 75. UCS was one of many organizations touched—and greatly strengthened—by Dr. McCarthy’s leadership, passion for advancing scientific understanding of the Earth’s climate and oceans, and tireless commitment to advancing science-based solutions for climate change.

“I was struck by Jim McCarthy’s rare combination of brilliance and humility, and his graceful intelligence the first time I met him, when he interviewed me as a candidate for this job,” said UCS President Ken Kimmell. “While best known for his work on climate change, Jim was a passionate advocate for the essential role science plays in our democracy and was a key architect in the formation of our Center for Science and Democracy in 2011. It was an honor to work together and to become Jim’s friend.” McCarthy joined the UCS board of directors in 2003 and served as the organization’s board chair from 2009 to 2015.

“Jim was a profoundly engaged board chair,” said Peter Frumhoff, UCS director of science and policy. “He always found time to mentor and partner with UCS staff on climate science initiatives, on building new capacity to innovate and take risks, and on engaging other senior scientific leaders in our science, outreach and advocacy. Leading by example, Jim modeled for so many of us what it means to be a scientist-advocate.”

McCarthy was the Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University, where he also served as director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1989 to 2002. Committed to interdisciplinary research before it became popular, he understood the importance of reaching across fields of study to draw holistic conclusions.

McCarthy’s primary research focused on the regulation of plankton productivity in the ocean, particularly in regions that are strongly affected by seasonal and year-to-year variations in climate. Through his work, he could plainly see the far-ranging and interconnected consequences of a warming planet, and he devoted much of his public service to education and advocacy on climate change.

He served on and led national and international organizations dedicated to addressing climate and global change. He was an author of regional, national and international climate change assessments, vice chair of the UCS-led Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, and headed the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II assessment of impacts and vulnerabilities relating to climate change. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed him to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

In addition to his leadership on the UCS board of directors for the past 16 years, McCarthy also previously served as chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) board of directors as well as that organization’s president. In 2018, McCarthy was named as a co-recipient of the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

Among his many other honors, McCarthy was elected as an AAAS fellow, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, and a Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences foreign member. He also received the New England Aquarium’s David B. Stone Award for distinguished service to the environment and the community and the Museum of Science Walker Prize for meritorious published scientific investigation and discovery.

“Jim was a warm, generous and inspirational leader, colleague, mentor and friend,” said Kathleen Rest, UCS executive director. “He brought to UCS his scientific expertise and concern about our climate, oceans, environment and health of our planet. But he also brought much more than that, showing genuine concern and care for our staff at all levels of the organization. It was my great privilege to know and work with him for more than 15 years. He was truly loved and admired by all of us.”