Cultural Institutions Lead on Climate Action

By Sarah Sutton Jessie Lund 

Note: This information shared during a joint webinar by Sustainable Museums and America’s Pledge on May 12, 2020. If you would like to watch a recording, you can do so here.

At a time when good news is hard to find, cultural institutions across the country have been leading by example, coming to the aid of their neighbors and cementing their status as valued  and trusted community members. Even as they were forced to close their doors to visitors, institutions have not only taken their enriching educational resources online, but many have used their unique resources to offer solutions to the ongoing and unprecedented pandemic, such as providing PPE, 3D printing facemasks, converting empty parking lots to test sites, opening food banks, and turning ornamental beds into food bank Victory Gardens. They have taken to heart the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics, which states that “public service is paramount.”  

This ethic applies not just to cultural institutions’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to the simultaneous crisis of climate change. Driven by the urgency of the science, the country’s museums, botanic gardens, heritage centers, zoos, and aquariums alike are leading in this space as well. In fact, over 80 cultural institutions have signed on to We Are Still In, the group of U.S. cities, states, tribes, businesses, faith groups, and other subnational organizations working to uphold the Paris climate agreement. And combined, the actions of this coalition, made up of more than 3,900 entities, add up to globally significant impact.  

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In fact, the latest analysis from America’s Pledge found that these subnational actors – who together represent nearly 70 percent of U.S. GDP, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population, and over half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – have the potential to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent over the next decade compared to 2005 levels, even without additional support from the federal government.  

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Source: America’s Pledge

The same America’s Pledge analysis found that when this subnational action is combined with ambitious federal policies, the U.S. has the potential to reduce emissions by nearly half by 2030. After all, bottom-up climate action from cities, states, businesses, cultural institutions, and others can be mutually reinforcing with top-down federal action. This level of emissions reduction is in line with a net-zero emissions trajectory by mid-century, which supports the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement – namely, limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, with best efforts to keep that rise below 1.5 degrees.

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 Source: America’s Pledge 

That is quite an ambitious pathway which undoubtedly requires significant action and engagement from sectors and geographies across the U.S., but the good news is that we are already well on our way. In fact, the actions required to realize this level of emissions reduction can be organized around a simple three principle framework, and perhaps most excitingly, cultural institutions have active projects in each. 

Source: America’s Pledge 

Principle 1: Accelerate Toward 100% Clean Electricity and Other Energy Supplies 

Over the past decade, the U.S. electricity system has become significantly cleaner. From 2005 to 2017, the system, while generating more electricity overall, decreased the carbon dioxide emissions associated with electricity generation by 28 percent through burning less coal and oil and using more natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficient processes. And a pathway to continued progress in renewable electricity deployment, with lower electricity costs, has already been established as commercially and technically viable. The private, public, and philanthropic sectors have propelled significant progress in decreasing the power sector’s carbon intensity through policy and investment. 

Courtesy, Manoa Heritage Center

For example, the Manoa Heritage Center in Honolulu, Hawaii (above), has installed its own microgrid, including solar panels and on-site battery storage, to reduce emissions and save money. When the system generates more than the site can store and use, the extra goes back to Hawai’i Electric Company for others to use. The solar panels’ output shows up on displays in the education center with a live feed. That’s accountability. The solar field at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania produces 30% of their annual needs: 2OOO MWh. Their public dashboard provides accountability as well. But we don’t all have open space, so an urban museum such as the Science Museum of Minnesota subscribes to a solar garden, which is a PV version of a community garden. This way they generate some of the electricity the museum has not quite been able to engineer out of its operations. The The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has even tucked an array into available space on the roof’s edge along the windows, out of public view on this historic structure, but shown here (below, right) from the Anthropology offices.               

Courtesy, Sustainable Museums

Phipps Conservatory and Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, invited the public to switch their family’s energy provider to one with renewable sourcing sanctioned by the Phipps. Making the change during a visit gave them free admission and reduced annual membership. Since January 2017, more than 5,000 Phipps guests have switched their household electricity to fossil-free renewable energy. At the end of each year, these households will have prevented 37,000 tons of CO2 emissions. This is equivalent to annually saving 77,712 barrels of oil from being burned, or 83,289,910 miles from being driven in an average passenger car. It has been their most successful membership recruitment program to date.  

Whatever your size or budget, there are clean energy options available to every cultural institution. Leaders in this space should consider which options make the most sense for their operations – whether on-site generation projects or power purchase agreements – and pursue them in earnest with the goal of sourcing all their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.  

Principle 2: Decarbonize End-Uses Like Buildings, Transportation, and Industry 

Just as important as addressing emissions from electricity generation is addressing emissions from buildings and transportation. The approach here is primarily through efficiency and electrification, the former looking at how to reduce energy use overall, and the latter involving replacing fossil-fueled end-uses with efficient, electrically powered technologies “fueled” with increasingly low-carbon electricity.  

You are probably most familiar with this work in buildings. A great example is the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. To showcase sustainability in building operations, the museum implemented added two heat recovery chillers to use excess heat energy (generated by operating the HVAC system) inside the building instead of exhausting it outside the building as a by-product. With the heat recovery system in place to reuse waste energy, and the solar garden share, described earlier, contributing 1/3 of their energy needs, the museum has reduced energy costs by $315,000 annually and paid itself back for first costs in a bit over three years.  A strong, ongoing partnership with local utility, Xcel Energy, and a creative leadership team, made this achievable.  

There are many examples of museums taking advantage of the combination of energy and lighting company incentives to re-lamp with LEDs, cutting energy use and staff time (for bulb replacement) while protecting collections and showing them off. The same utility mentioned above, Xcel Energy, helped Minneapolis Institute of Art re-lamp its galleries with LEDs. With an energy rebate, and part of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Sustaining Cultural Heritage Grant, they paid off the investment in the first year and are now saving about $150,000 a year, which can be reallocated to more beneficial uses, while also reducing their carbon impact. (Note – this NEH program is the only federal program specifically designed to help museum operate in a more sustainable way. Their annual planning and implementation grants are due January 14th.) 

The MFA Boston has replaced 70 percent of gallery lights with LEDs to achieve significant efficiencies, too, but their work goes beyond simply lighting. Examining how we condition spaces for collections is critical. A decade ago, the sector, with MFA Boston as a key leader, and working with the International Institute of Conservation (IIC), successfully re-examined its assumed temperature setpoints of 70 degrees +/- 4, and 50 percent RH +/- 2 percent, and recommended science-driven approaches to ranges of appropriate settings for collections management goals. For many institutions, working with a conservator to identify the most appropriate guidelines for their collections and their settings can save significant energy and improve collections care. Universal adoption of these standards is the next important energy conservation work for the cultural sector.   

Visitor transportation is another are for example and influence. When the Discovery Museum, Massachusetts, conducted its greenhouse gas inventory as it plotted a path to zero carbon, the team discovered that scope three emissions from visitors’ vehicles made up the largest share of their carbon impact. This is where our role as community leaders can have a real impact. Though it may feel as if your visitors’ mode of travel is beyond your reach, you can encourage clean options. The Discovery Museum, for example, has designed a solar array to shade their parking lot and offset institutional energy use. They’ll install electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at the same time. Hawai’i’s Manoa Heritage Center and Minneapolis’ American Swedish Institute offer discounts for visitors coming on bikes or foot. Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, Abbe Museum in Maine, and the Peoria Riverfront Museum all have EV charging stations placed preferentially: close by the entrances at museums in Maine and Peoria, and in the shade in Honolulu. 

Transportation is another critical area for making change. Many institutions have a staff vehicle, an education van, golf carts for open space areas, or even full fleets. Choosing electric, when it’s time to replace or add vehicles, is a critically important choice. And even if you do not have the final say, you can make a thoughtful case to the purchasing department to consider changing policy.  

Principle 3: Enhance Ecosystems 

Finally, land use has the potential to address a significant portion of our greenhouse gas emissions. That is, natural systems play a vital role in sequestering carbon, but their status as a carbon sink is not guaranteed because of the country’s changing landscape. This has led to deforestation and fewer natural spaces in general. 

Courtesy, Phipps Conservatory and Gardens

Of course, the gardens and zoos contribute significantly here for beneficial land use. The Phipps Conservatory and Gardens goes beyond its own greenery to reclaim land and create buildings and spaces that contribute to this work. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) has won awards for the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, WELL Building Platinum, SITES Platinum, and BREEAM Outstanding In-Use. The CSL building and surrounding landscape seen here (below), are built on a former brownfield.  

Not all of us will build green-certified buildings or reclaim landscapes, but we can plant trees to shade our properties and cool our landscapes and our communities. Urban tree canopies can sequester significant amounts of carbon-dioxide. Since most of our cultural institutions are in cities, this is where we can make a difference. Historic properties have a leg up here with space availability, but if you don’t have space, you can still encourage tree planting in your community. 

In Tacoma, Washington, there is a nonprofit using trees as tools for building community. Tacoma Tree Foundation partners with individuals and institutions to make sure trees thrive in this community. With mapping tools (right), they create a social approach to growing Tacoma green again, helping to make it a cool city, and a healthier city.  

In Massachusetts, Tower Hill Botanical Gardens adopted the City of Worcester’s Tree Initiative to support the work to reestablish an urban canopy decimated by Asian Longhorn Beetles.  The Initiative planted 30,000 trees in Worcester and surrounding towns in October of 2014, then Tower Hill adopted the program, “replacing, pruning, planting and watering community trees, forming the Stewards in the Streets program, and acting as community agents driving tree planting and care initiatives.” Like the Tacoma Tree Foundation, the goal is to plant trees where the green spaces are few, and then help residents to care for them. 

Every cultural institutions can ensure that any land for which they have responsibility – literally or figuratively – is managed in a way that enhances its ability to absorb and store carbon rather than contribute to further carbon emissions. It benefits your institution and your community.

What’s Can Your Institution Do?

Hopefully, this post and accompanying webinar have provided some ideas of actions that you can take immediately, as well as how you might communicate them to your community. It may have also spurred some ideas around how you can better engage with your community around climate. That is, not only can cultural institutions educate the public about their actions, motivations, and impact across all three principles, but they can also educate the public about climate and the actions anyone can take. As one of the most trusted organizations in the U.S., cultural institutions have an important role to play in educating their communities about the science behind climate change and most importantly, actions they can take to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis.  

In addition to the projects mentioned throughout, we also encourage you to consider becoming a We Are Still In signatory, if you’re not already. It’s free to sign on, and it opens the door to conscious cooperative climate action. Sustainable Museums can help get you started. 

Lastly, you can also work with local and state offices to advance climate action in your area. And in fact, you can contact Sustainable Museums to make your voice heard at the federal level as the country figures out how to recover from COVID-19 and build back better. Just reach out to Sarah@sustainablemuseums.net.     

Note: This information shared during a joint webinar by Sustainable Museums and America’s Pledge on May 12, 2020. If you would like to watch a recording, you can do so here.

*** 

About America’s Pledge 

In the wake of President Trump’s initial announcement that he planned to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017, an unprecedented number of U.S. cities, states, businesses, and universities reaffirmed their commitment to help America reach its Paris climate goals. Whether through declarations like We Are Still In or new pledges and commitments of their own, these bottom-up actors are maintaining U.S. momentum on climate action in the absence of federal leadership. In July 2017, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former California Governor Edmund G. Brown launched America’s Pledge, an initiative to aggregate and quantify the actions by U.S. states, cities, businesses, and other non-federal actors to drive down their greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Since its launch, America’s Pledge has published annual assessments of non-federal action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on a unique methodological approach developed by climate researchers and policy experts. To learn more about America’s Pledge, please visit www.americaspledge.com 

About Sustainable Museums 

Museums, and their cultural peers, have the physical and intellectual resources, abilities, creativity, freedom, and authority to foster the changes the World needs most. Sustainable Museums creates connections among leaders and innovators, providing intellectual and strategic support as cultural institutions plan to thrive as they create those changes the World needs. In 2018, We Are Still In added the cultural sector to its growing coalition, with Sarah Sutton and Sustainable Museums as the lead for the sector.  

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