“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.

Climate Change and Museums edition of Journal of Museum Management & Curatorship

I’m delighted to share this special issue with you all. It is freely accessible to everyone.

You’ll recognize many of the authors’ names, and meet a few new ones, perhaps: Joy Davis (our marvelous and patient editor), Bob Janes (the driver and our chief motivator), Jenny Newell, Diane Dubray, Julie Decker, Henry McGhie, Asha Singhal, Ben Sutter, Follin and Helen Arfvidsson, and the Bushfire Response Team of the National Museum of Australia.

Their material covers a range of scale and effort in the sector, with input from all around the World, that is so impressive and encouraging. It couldn’t possibly capture the degree of work happening now. But I remember when a single book needed examples from outside the sector to adequately address the potential of “sustainability” for museums. In 2006 or so, when Elizabeth Wylie and I began writing about this work, and I was Sarah Brophy, we had to find examples from other LEED buildings and other industries to make our case. When we wrote the second edition of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice just five years later, it was one-third longer and ALL the examples were from museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, parks and historic sites.

We’ve come so, so far as a sector, but Bob Janes’ call for alarm is legitimate and necessary. What we’ve done so far, collectively, is nowhere near enough – inside our sector and outside of it. I do know that there is much to celebrate and build on because I see it demonstrated every day among my colleagues on the Executive Committee of We Are Still In – the largest coalition of supporters of the Paris Agreement anywhere in the World. I see momentum.

I see momentum we can draw upon and contribute to. So, to Bob’s call for internal and external work to improve our field, I add the priority of cross-sector engagement. We will not solve renewable energy and clean transportation as a sector, but we can support other sectors to further understanding and adoption, perhaps even test some of the new resources for the public. We can do research that supports alternative and sustainable agricultural sectors by fostering community and Indigenous approaches. And we can work with the energy and construction sector to improve our buildings so that they last and are not a burden but an asset for the Earth.

Please take the time to educate yourself as much as possible – and continuously. And please gather your curiosity, courage, and commitment for our arsenal for helping to heal the planet. It matters so much more than most of us realize.

Cultural Institutions & The Paris Agreement’s 5th Anniversary

Three and a half years ago, on June 1, 2017, when the US President announced his intention to withdraw the United States from its commitments to the World, it seemed to me (and many others) that those of us who care, would still do the work of limiting climate change and restoring the planet’s climate and social systems to healthy conditions for human and non-human animals.

I was reassured by the response as I called clients and colleagues to see if they would join me in what was then named #MuseumsforParis, and has become @CultureforParis to reflect a broader participation from the sector. I also realized I needed allies in this – that a sector alone cannot do this work, and it should not be done without our sector. Then We Are Still In appeared on the scene. I watched what they were doing, and was so excited by their cross-sector approach. They knew that cities and states and tribal nations had to engage where the federal government didn’t, but that these place-based governments needed allies in companies (who had more money and both national and local audiences), investors, and higher education (the research pipeline with significant national infrastructure). Where there was already green momentum, these sectors came together. Soon We Are Still In adopted health, faith-based, and cultural institutions to engage more layers of direct climate impact (though building use, transit, and energy generation) but also public engagement. That public engagement is key to expanding political will to do the right, green things. The hard work of changing energy sources, generating energy, changing supply chains, and crafting new public policies must engage the public that must understand the science and the opportunities so they can make similar choices, buy the products and the energy, generate that energy or support community efforts to do so, and participate in the social, scientific and policy research that paves new ways forward.

And look at us all today. As the World’s nations update the Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the commitments of the Paris Agreement, the United State is poised to re-enter this global partnership and officially resume its commitments and responsibilities. An important component of that Biden-Harris approach must be full engagement of cities, states, businesses, colleges and universities, cultural institutions and other key partners in the coalition effort to tackle the climate crisis. Climate action is no longer primarily the domain of scientists or policy experts, no longer the sole domain of federal governments – here or abroad. For every country committed to global climate action, the path forward engages other levels of leadership and impacted communities as partners; the cultural sector is an excellent partner for this work.

Cultural institutions do this through museum-community partnerships on urban heat island effect and social justice (The Science Museum of Virginia); innovations in energy generation (The Science Museum of Minnesota); traditional ecological knowledge (Abbe Museum) and historical understanding (The Henry Ford); energy reductions (The Field Museum, Missouri Historical Society, and Detroit Zoological Society); energy generation (Cincinnati Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, and The Exploratorium); public engagement (National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpreters, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and The Climate Museum); social justice (King Manor Museum); and resilience planning (Strawbery Banke Museum).

Sustainable Museums is grateful for the examples set by these institutions. With the shift that is the Biden-Harris Administration, cultural institutions are ready to increase their engagement through expanded partnerships, and are signaling their interest by supporting the new declaration hosted by We Are Still In on the anniversary of the Paris Agreement: www.AmericaIsAllIn.com

You’ll find them there, and everywhere you look for sensible community climate solutions.

United States Cultural Institutions Support The Paris Agreement

Courtesy, We Are Still In

The New York Times reports that President Trump has just announced the formal process for withdrawing the United States from The Paris Agreement. Those of us who care about the current and future health of the only planet on which we can live are still going to do the critical work to reverse the damaging effects of human activity in our biosphere. As we do so, we create a healthier, more just way of living for us all.

Sixty-six cultural institutions have joined We Are Still In and are making their contributions to the Agreement by reducing energy use, generating clean energy, reducing materials use and food waste, and enhancing public engagement on climate issues to help broaden awareness and support collective action. The list is here – see if your favorite museum, zoo, garden, aquarium or historic site is on it. Ask them to join if they are not. Please go to http://www.wearestillin.com to sign on, now.

Climate action comes in all shapes and sizes. The Field Museum leads the way regionally in managing food waste (think of how many lunches those school groups bring). It offers public engagement programming, and has redeveloped a resource-intensive lawn into a new local ecosystem for as native Wild Rice garden as an educational, ecological, and cultural resource.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science is practically zero-waste even with all their school groups, too. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, FL, regularly feels the effects of sea level rise and is doing its part to raise climate awareness, educate the community, reduce waste impacts from programs and events, and take steps to protect a cultural resource in the face of overwhelming change. As it restores Vizcaya Village it creates an educational space for local food production and sustainable practices.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and New England Aquarium all support the Paris Agreement. So do the Brick Store Museum, Abbe Museum, Monterey Museum of Art, Strawbery Banke Museum, and the Madison Children’s Museum.

Artwork by Maggie Dimon

While President Trump is doubling down on a disastrous course of action, he is ignoring this key piece of information: the majority of Americans support the Paris Agreement.

  • Over three-quarters (77%) of registered voters support continued U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, including almost all Democrats (92%), three in four Independents (75%), and a majority of Republicans (60%).
  • By more than 5 to 1, voters say the U.S. should participate in the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • American states, cities, and businesses committed to the Paris Agreement represent nearly 70% of GDP and nearly 65% of the U.S. population.

We all have a role to play. The Association for Science-Technology Centers, American Anthropological Association, America Public Garden Association, Environment and Climate Network of the American Alliance of Museums, the New England Museum Association and the Southeast Museums Conference, and the Arizona and Florida museum associations ALL support the Paris Agreement. Do you? Does your museum or association?

The future IS climate. We must manage our impacts on the climate if we wish to thrive in it. But it takes all of us to work together to teach each other and to do work together. We can walk a shared path to keep from damaging natural systems so badly that they do not support the ways of life we hope to enjoy for ourselves and our descendants. We can walk a shared path to make this a healthier, more just place for us all.

Please show your support for The Paris Agreement through @culturalforparis and @wearestillin.

A Report from Climate Week + Thoughts for Cultural Institutions’ Participation in 2020

What the Heck is Climate Week and Why Should You Care?

New York City’s Climate Week is an overlay to a series of high-level (international leader-level) Summits held at the United Nations Headquarters. Thousands of individuals, businesses, associations and countries take advantage of the critical mass of power – brain power and political power – gathered in one place to plan the next steps of climate ambition, that intention-setting process that advances the World’s work in reducing human impacts on climate.

I represented the cultural sector of We Are Still In (WASI), learning about how this summit system works, what parts of its climate work align with our sector, and what cultural institutions can do to participate fully next year. We must be part of the conversation if we’re going to influence it or benefit from it. Next year I hope more of you will be there with me.  Put it on your calendar – the third week in September.

The Carbon Cost of Meetings

This is the second time I have spent carbon to talk climate on the international climate summit level, and the umpteenth time I’ve spent it to talk climate in many other places. I’m choosing to make this the last time I remind you that I believe this is an acceptable use of carbon. First, I offset all my personal and professional carbon by a factor of 2 using the UN’s Climate Neutral Now program. Second, meeting with these folks, hearing them talk about what they’ve been able to accomplish and what they’re trying to do in addition, stretches my imagination of what’s possible and encourages me when I waver in my confidence that we can solve this. Third, I always come away with a renewed and strengthened understanding of the value of cultural institutions in this climate work, and new connections and opportunities to help them expand their work.

What Went On

I attended a carbon-pricing discussion at the German Consulate; a presentation by six Climate Governors expressing a mind-boggling degree of mutual admiration and cooperation even with differences all in the name of smart, scaled solutions for reducing human impacts on climate; two talks by the sustainability champions at Google and Microsoft on their support for innovative climate projects; a discussion among climate funders and WASI Executive Committee about decarbonization and cross-sector projects; and then a panel of WASI signatories that wowed us with the stories of challenges and progress in Pittsburgh, at the Mars company, in health care and in manufacturing. Their stories were inspirational as much because of what they accomplished as for how challenging it was for each to take on new and discouraging territory. They succeeded anyway – big time.

What Will Come of It

As a result of all this and similar experiences during Climate Week, I have a far better grasp of the work that will make the most difference. For the Cultural Sector of We Are Still In, I now see more clearly how our messages parallel those from the healthcare industry and faith arenas, and fill in gaps that the economic and disaster-related messages leave behind. I can see now how partnerships with the health and faith communities can amplify the message to the public that this is something we must all get behind in clear and committed fashion for collective impact.  And by doing this, we can ease the path for industry and government in creating positive change.

Every one of us as individuals and representing our organizations is motivated by different factors. For some it’s money-saving; for others it’s carbon.  Some are motivated by charismatic mega-fauna (polar bears) and some by a more scientific perspective of biodiversity; and some by concern for our future and for those who will call us ancestors. Whatever the motive – climate solutions can satisfy it. And the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) can satisfy it. There’s room for anyone in this movement.

Join In – We Are Still In welcomes you

This December a number of cultural institutions from the US and more from around the World will be present at the Council of the Parties or COP25 when the nations gather to formally share their roadmaps to meeting their goals of the Paris Agreement. We’ll be showcasing the work we’ve done and will be talking with others about how to advance this work. We’re raising awareness of the role of culture and cultural institutions in climate action. We’ll demonstrate to the World that not only is the United States still in, cultural institutions around the world support the Paris Agreement too. So please help make our case by signing on to We Are Still In so that we can show the World even stronger numbers by December 1st.  Then pay attention to the news from Santiago, and get ready to join us in NYC next September to talk about what you’ve done and to learn from others what else we can all do. If you have a sustainability story to tell, we want to hear it and share it.