Thinking back to COP25 from this missed year

The Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) was postponed for a year from now. Thinking of what we could be doing together in a safer time reminds me of what we accomplished in the last year.

Cultural institutions made an important showing at COP25 in Madrid a year ago this month. Not only were there representatives from the United States, we joined with others from the UK to fan out across the participating countries’ pavilions to spread the word that cultural institutions – museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, history museums and heritage sites – are not only taking action on climate issues but are excellent partners with any sector tackling mitigation, adaptation, resilience, research and public engagement.

Stephanie Shapiro, representing the American Alliance of Museums, and I, representing the Cultural Sector of We Are Still In, participated in five presentations in four different ‘country’ settings. Andrew Potts, ICOMOS coordinator of the international Climate Heritage Network, was in nearly every ‘country’ during the two weeks, facilitating or joining panel presentations to spread the word. Henry McGhie was “in” nearly as many. I was delighted to join them both whenever possible.

During our time there, Stephanie and I, and our colleagues, were energized and so excited at the new or deeper connections we made with peers.

Friends and Colleagues presenting for the European Union L – R: Silvia Martínez Rocher, Hannah Norton, Henry McGhie, Andrew Potts, Ewan Hyslop and Ian Lumley
Henry McGhie of Curating Tomorrow presenting at the Nordic Pavilion
Paloma Muñoz-Campos hosting Henry McGhie and me for a workshop at the National Museum of Decorative Arts, Madrid

Stephanie and I left mid-way through the COP since our passes lasted only so long. We had covered as much territory as we could, presenting, listening, and connecting. We took with us a set of national and international commitments for broadening and deepening our work.

Once home we started hearing about the lack of significant national commitments on the final days. We heard that many think the COP was a failure on par with earlier meetings that failed to create or scale ambition. And if we’re honest instead of hopeful, what we saw during was a stunning lack of global nation-state leadership on climate change, the absence of which by the US administration being the worst and most shameful example.

But we were not, and are not deterred. Just as in 2017, when the US Administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and thoughtful Americans refused to retreat from climate action, I expect the same response globally: those who care will still do this work, and do so to fill the void from significant national ambition in their home countries. They certainly have, I can say from one year on, and with our eyes set on Climate Week NYC and COP26 in Glasgow in a year, I can confidently say that the national and global engagement for the cultural sector will be strong and meaningful.

There has been great value in the step-up that the US withdrawal triggered, but only because the abdication is soon to be reversed, and because the temporary substitute response was significant and lasting. Both must continue with strength and courage until the job is done. I am inspired and encouraged by the options before us right now.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry , now our international climate leader. Courtesy Henry McGhie
Eric Bechbuhl, MIXER, Switzerland

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