“It seemed to me that those who cared would still do this work.” They have.

We’re entering a new climate action era in the United States. Sustainable Museums is stepping into that era with a grateful bow to some of the colleagues and partnerships that molded cultural sector climate action these last three years.

In 2017, on June 1, when former President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, it seemed to me that those who cared about this work would keep doing it anyway. I called colleagues and clients to ask if they felt #MuseumsforParis was something they could get behind. They said yes. Once my first ten calls identified ten supporters, I knew I needed more heft: more expertise and reach than my one-woman-under-the-avocado-tree “office” then offered me.

Just days later on June 5th, We Are Still In (WASI) burst on the scene as a coalition of what I would come to know as “non-state actors”: the everyone-but-the-feds group that cared about this work and were going to keep doing it anyway. I was thrilled. The companies, the city and state governments, and higher education had come together in a fascinating way: it was integrated design for action, not for a single project or product. It seemed a near-perfect strategy. All it was missing was a place for cultural institutions.

In March 2018, Henry McGhie, now of Curating Tomorrow, organized a turning-point moment, the International Symposium on Climate Change and Museums. That’s where many museum and preservation folks from around the world met in person for the first time. We forged international connections that continue to thrive. Who knew there were so many working so completely on the role of culture in climate action: Australia, England, Scotland, US, Canada, Italy, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands…?

And then suddenly it was October and many of us were convening at the Global Climate Action Summit. There were forty or more global cultural heritage institutions meeting over two days as Andrew Potts and Julianne Polanco hosted the Climate Heritage Network planning meeting, building an international network aligned with ICOMOS. And about 200 of the 2800 signatories to We Are Still In were gathering as well. The purpose was to plan how WASI would build strength and enable climate action in the face of unrelenting dismantling of climate work by the national leadership. About 10 of the WASI participants were cultural institutions, including Monterey Bay Aquarium, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, The Field Museum, and California Academy of Sciences.

During the 2018 WASI and Climate Heritage Network meetings I came to fully realize the power of cross-sector, multi-lateral work, and the potency of alliances based on shared values and profiting from varied skills and resources.

2019 saw a big green push at ICOM in Kyoto, cultural institutions participating in Climate Week NYC, and a convergence of international friends and allies at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties 25 in Madrid. Allied efforts with Climate Heritage Network and Curating Tomorrow meant that those of us working nationally and internationally on museums, the arts, and cultural heritage in support of climate action could leverage each other for greater and broader impact.

Internationally, WASI was committed to ensuring the World knew the US was still working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement, and that no nation should step away from the responsibility. WASI participation at the COP was a demonstration of that commitment. People from around the world frequently thanked We Are Still In representatives for staying the course. There was a hunger to see the country return to this global effort.

In the US, in 2020, there were now 87 cultural sector signatories to We Are Still In. The general understanding of our sector’s role in this work was broadening but uptake was blocked by the growing pandemic. During COVID, our work focused on building internal capacities and initiative resilience. After momentarily pausing our efforts for fear of sounding tone-deaf, as Elan Strait said, we began to realize that the converging crises of climate change, health, economics and equity increased the need for action that built a more stable, healthy world for all – climate action.

We focused on our own relationships and on supporting community resilience. Sustainable Museums coordinated the sector’s letter to Congress for recovery funds that focused on multi-sector support. We strengthened muscles and developed expertise as we waited for an environment allowing us to do more. With the election of President Biden and Vice-President Harris, we knew change is coming. We Are Still In prepared to be all-in alongside the federal government.

Now, with an international climate envoy in John Kerry, and a domestic climate leader in Gina McCarthy, we, of this movement, are poised to support global and domestic advances across every sector. The people who care about this work have kept it up, converging from all sectors to support each other and drive climate action.

Every moment since beginning my work with We Are Still In, I have been proud of, and thrilled and encouraged by, the talent, selflessness, experience, and commitment of the WASI executive committee and Secretariat. These include the leadership from World Wildlife Fund deployed to We Are Still In (Elan Strait, Kevin Taylor, Ryan Finnegan, now also Tansy-Massey Green and Hannah Greenfelder); my sector lead colleagues in higher education (Tim Carter), organizers of mayors and governors (Brent Thorington and James Ritchotte, and the team at US Climate Alliance); and the representatives of Climate Nexus (Alison Fajans-Turner and Emma Hutchinson) and America’s Pledge (Carla Frisch and Nate Hultman). There are many more to name here who have committed their time, expertise, knowledge, and relationships, to build a safer, healthier, more just future for us all through climate action. Their capacity to learn, adapt, and counsel themselves and each other continuously reminds me that we are truly able to advance climate action, and that more of us will soon be able to step up, too.

With the call for signatories to the letter for America is All In, now 96 cultural institutions have signed on. (You can sign on here.) As We Are Still In adapts yet again to opportunity and need, cultural institutions will support the dual responsibilities of domestic and international examples and allies for climate action. The sector and Sustainable Museums are all in. Sustainable Museums will be proudly continuing to promote the sector’s work.

You can expect

  • new calls to, and resources for, measuring and monitoring action so that we are transparent and accountable, and provide ample examples for others
  • a focus on city-based and state-based cooperative approaches to climate action that benefit all entities
  • research that advances professional practice on energy, collections care, and public interactions to scale change within the sector, and
  • a relentless pursuit of access to funds, talent and resources that help the sector prioritize climate action.

This work must and will move ahead in ways that are mission-driven and science-based, that support community equity, and that build accountability to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement commitments.