Three Ways Museums Can Face Up to the Climate Crisis

November 2019
By Adrian Ellis

Whether or not we are at or past a tipping point with respect to accelerating climate change, we do at least appear to be at one in our appetite for concerted action to address it. But museums are unclear about their responsibilities and how they are best met.

Individuals and organisations for whom climate change was a genuine though slightly abstract ethical and prudential concern, subject to sporadic gestural impulses—that would be me—are folding the reality of concerted action into personal and professional agendas, and revising those agendas to accommodate that action, often quite radically.

Greta Thunberg’s Skolstrejk för Klimatet movement is an obvious example of this radical re-grounding, as is the UK’s Extinction Rebellion, but so is the “global covenant” of city mayors that has pushed city government deep into the province of national and inter­national agencies. Institutional investors, activist asset managers, pension funds and banks are directing large-scale disinvestment in fossil fuels and harassing airlines to get ahead of flight-shaming. Bank regulators are advocating for the “orderly market transition to a low-carbon economy”. As the CEO of Morgan Stanley put it: “If we don’t have a planet, we’re not going to have a very good financial system.” Nor will we have very good museums.

So it is anomalous that museum leaders—outside of natural history and science, whose core domain is climate science—have not grasped the climate emergency more vigorously as the focal point for clarion collective action. The stewardship of material culture over the long haul, scientific method and reasoning, values of empathy and compassion, and civilisation by pretty well any definition you can come up with, are all at stake. No issue is more relevant—and relevance is the sector’s current leitmotif.

The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 by 195 countries in a historic display of intergovernmental solidarity. Since then, climate change has accelerated faster than the accord projected. In June, fires raged across Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, discharging 50 megatonnes of CO2. July was the hottest month on record and August’s Hurricane Dorian was described by meteorologists as “the longest siege of violent, destructive weather ever observed”. Rising sea levels are affecting the 340 million people living in coastal cities like Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong and Manila, but also Miami, New Orleans, New York and, of course Venice. Seven million people were displaced by extreme weather events in the first six months of this year.

Deepening scientific understanding of climate change has revealed new complexities and feedback loops; for example, large reserves of CO2 trapped in the ocean may be released as sea ­temperatures rise. The jury is out on technocratic redress: advances in alternative energy have exceeded expectations, but carbon sequestering technologies are still unproven at scale. And disconcertingly for many viewers of the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, nuclear power is one of the low-carbon energy technologies on which reaching the Paris targets was premised.

Global trajectory

Whether you believe we have passed a tipping point of irreversible climate change depends partly on where you get your science from and how often you get it. But climate change is “anthro­pogenic” in character – we cause it. So your perspective also depends on your assessment of the prospects for concerted and effective collective action. There is no informed constituency that has argued there is a path to climatic stability that avoids collective global co-operation of an unprecedented nature.

So it is unfortunate that the prospects of effective state-level action have visibly deteriorated. Populists like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump have reneged on the Paris Agreement, and vested interests in energy, agriculture, transport and other emission-heavy sectors have continued to work to impede legislative progress and public investment, and cloud public understanding. Government attention and investment do not, as a result, reflect the scale of the problem or the priority that most of the world’s population place upon addressing it.

These three clusters of facts– the accelerating impact of cumulative and continuing emissions; the frailty of scientific and technological assumptions informing the Paris Agreement; and failures of national political will–suggest that the current trajectory is likely to cause “major damage to the global economy and the natural world and […] risks of catastrophic and irreversible outcomes”, according to the IMF’s recent assessment.

But for these same reasons—indeterminate science, accelerating climatic mayhem and the possibility of more effective collective action—this calamitous outcome is not inevitable. Optimism is hardwired into the human condition, and so this is having a galvanising effect. Absent effective national action, questions of individual and (non-national governmental) collective responsibility and agency are being thrown into sharp relief, in the context of moral discussions about intergenerational and geographic equity (climate justice), but also in more self-serving or prudential discussions about the future of food and water security, banking, insurance, mortgages, and the impact of mass migration on your turf.

There is now an active network of national and international organisations campaigning for a higher profile for climate action in museums—the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice (Canada); We Are Still In and the Museums and Climate Change Network (US); Julie’s Bicycle and the Happy Museum Project (UK). ICOM has recently established a new Working Group on Sustainability, and there are some celebrated examples of good practice – often smaller institutions—although Tate, to its credit, declared its embrace of the climate emergency this July.

The Bizot Group, the informal consortium comprising many of the world’s leading museums, developed a “greenprotocol” as far back as 2015, focused on “the energy consumption associated with the sector’s conservation standards”, but few members are celebrating compliance. The larger, existential agenda still lacks traction.

The reasons are not complicated, but they are not edifying either. A narrow, formally restricted interpretation of a museum’s mission can allow it to nimbly side-step the whole issue. The territory is still wilfully contested by many boards, sponsors and donor groups that contain some of the vested interests described, and neither stakeholders—other than artists and visitors—nor professional groups are providing the cues or sense of urgency that even bank regulators are.

Here, then, is a modest three-point sectoral agenda that might provide a gateway into more strategic engagement with the world’s most pressing issue:

1. Transparent review of endowment, sponsorship and donor strategies with a view to disinvesting and disengaging from industries that are contributing to greenhouse gases. Within that headline there is a multiplicity of strategies and timeframes that could be debated and argued. The point is to have the debate and state a defensible position.

2. Voluntary, published audit and institutional targets for carbon emissions and their reductions, such as those developed by Julie’s Bicycle—from travel policy and wooden crating through to utility procurement and, already fairly advanced, green building.

3. Routine integration of robust science-based education about climate change, its causes and effects and opportunities for prescriptive action into educational and explanatory materials, linked clearly to a broad articulation of institutional mission and purpose.

This agenda would not proscribe any specific approach or prognosis concerning the climate emergency, but it would rule out denying or ignoring it.

Adrian Ellis is a director of AEA Consulting and the chair of the Global Cultural Districts Network

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