Climate change might be the most important issue the world faces today. Readers of this site will know it has a rich history. It helped trigger the evolution of sentience in primates, created conditions that encouraged agriculture, and influenced the rise and fall of civilizations from Bronze Age Greece to the Ottoman Empire. Its present, as we have recently been reminded, affects us all. In just the last week, dozens have died in Texan floods, hundreds in an Indian heat wave, and thousands in a Syrian war provoked, in part, by drought. The future looks even more alarming. The IPCC and WMO have both warned that the world, and our place in it, may be almost unrecognizable in a century. So why is there no climate change museum?
Granted, most natural history museums have exhibits dedicated to climate history and global warming. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D. C., for example, features a spectacular exhibit that links climate change to the fate of early hominids (above). The American Museum of Natural History in New York has an alcove just beneath the Hayden Planetarium that describes global warming and explains how scholars reconstruct past climates. But no permanent museum gathers all of this information in one place, in a way that skips over disciplinary boundaries and alerts the public about the importance of action, today.
Miranda Massie and a group of like-minded experts are trying to change all that. Massie is the executive director of the Climate Museum Launch Project. Her initiative seeks to open a climate change museum in New York City, which she hopes will attract some one million visitors per year. We are delighted that she took the time to answer our questions.
Dagomar Degroot (DD): In a nutshell, what is the Climate Museum?
Miranda Massie (MM): A climate solutions-focused museum with compelling, interactive exhibits in tourist-accessible New York City.
There are two basic reasons for creating such an institution, both arising out of the enormous importance of climate change. First, in intellectual and cultural terms, it’s hard to think of a richer or more interesting subject for a museum. Climate change cuts across a huge range of disciplines and subject areas: many branches of science, of course, and also history, public health, conservation, social justice, psychology, art, and ethics, to name some of the most obvious.
Second, and this is what inspires our team to take on a project of this magnitude, we believe that such an institution is uniquely fit to broaden climate engagement, and that an engaged public can generate the climate initiatives needed for humanity to flourish. The museum will break down cognitive and emotional barriers that have helped prevent the formation of a broad climate public. It will concretize climate science through immersive, sensory exhibits; serve as a hub for climate art and dialogue; inspire confidence by showcasing successes; and create a sense of connection and community. The Climate Museum will incubate shared optimism, determination, and enterprise on our most critical challenge.
"An engaged public can generate the climate initiatives needed for humanity to flourish."
DD: You were a PhD student in history at Yale. You became a lawyer who fought for the marginalized and dispossessed. How has your background equipped you to present the science of climate change in a new way?
MM: I don’t think it has! We have a running list of exhibit ideas, but overall my thoughts on our programmatic content are quite general: it has to be solutions-focused, varied, highly engaging, and community-building. That’s hardly a blueprint.
Instead, fresh and immersive presentations of the science will be the province of a team of scientific advisors, climate communications experts, exhibit designers, and curators, talent pools we’re exploring. One of the most rewarding aspects of this project is meeting so many gifted specialists—almost all of whom have responded with generosity and enthusiasm.
On the other hand, I do think my background has prepared me for this work in other ways. Studying social history and prosecuting civil rights claims taught me that community participation can solve seemingly intractable problems. The latter also exposed me first-hand to the courage and resolve of unsuspected heroes. Both showed me we can win.
DD: A recent New Yorker article claims that Hurricane Sandy convinced you that climate change was more than a middle class issue. Do you think the hurricane has helped – or will help you – find support for the museum in New York? Does that say anything about how the public understands climate change?
MM: Over time, I came to see climate change as at once the ultimate social equality issue and a categorically distinct and overriding threat to human well-being. Sandy transformed my unease over not working on it into sharpening distress.
As for Sandy and support, yes—I think Sandy is one of the key reasons the museum will happen. It changed how New Yorkers think and feel about climate change. It’s a priority for us now in a different way. There are other factors too, of course, including the leadership of the Bloomberg and now De Blasio administrations on climate, the effective work of many advocacy organizations and individual activists, and the joyful success of the climate march last fall. But Sandy was key.
And that does say something about how we understand climate change. It’s easier for us to relate to discrete weather events than it is to long-term trends, risks, statistics, and the like. Climate science didn’t change the day after Sandy, but many New Yorkers’ feelings about it did.
This is partly an American dynamic. Even leaving aside climate denialism, science and science education have been put under strain in the US, intensifying the intimidating and opaque quality of climate science (as compared to weather experience). But it’s also a human dynamic. We’re first physical creatures, then social and emotional ones, and then only on a good day, at least speaking for myself, intellectual ones. It’s one of the reasons a museum can be such an effective means of connecting with people on climate. It will contain the right information pyramid.
This is very much a museum about resilience, adaptation, and mitigation—about our shared ability to escape the danger our shared abilities and proclivities have created.
DD: Will your museum explore how humans have evolved with climate change, from prehistory to the present? Or will this be a museum of global warming?
MM: The main focus will be on solutions to anthropogenic climate change, with concentric circles of context. One of those circles will be devoted to the history of the planet’s climate and its relationship to life, including human life.
DD: To what extent will disaster and decline – keywords in the quest for action on global warming - play a role in your museum?
MM: While we must be honest about growing risks, this is very much a museum about resilience, adaptation, and mitigation—about our shared ability to escape the danger our shared abilities and proclivities have created.
DD: How close is the Museum of Climate Change to becoming a reality? What still needs to be done? How can people help?
MM: Much closer than it was when we started fifteen months ago, with longer left to go. We’ve gotten as far as we have because so many people have offered support and expertise, and we very much welcome more. It is a huge help for people to spread the word through social media and in person. And we gratefully welcome your readers’ further thoughts on how we can, with their engagement and support, get closer to the red ribbon moment. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This autumn, we are launching a climate change podcast series. Our podcasts will be shared and transcribed in this space. Stay tuned for details.
Dr. Michael Mann is one of the world's best-known climate change scholars. He is the director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, where he pioneers innovative methods for reconstructing past climate change. He is perhaps best known for a thousand-year climate reconstruction he co-authored in 1999, which featured prominently in both the IPCC's Third Assessment Report (2001) and in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Mann is the author of more than 160 peer-reviewed publications and two books, and he is the founder of the popular climatology blog RealClimate. On Twitter, he is followed by nearly 23,000 people.
For these reasons, we asked Dr. Mann to give an interview that would launch a new "Interviews" section of HistoricalClimatology.com. We are very grateful that he took the time to answer our questions.
Dagomar Degroot (DD): In your most recent book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, you chronicle the campaign of misinformation surrounding a widely cited climate reconstruction you published in 1999. Why does the past matter so much for our understanding of present and future climate change? Were you surprised when your reconstruction thrust you into a debate about contemporary policy?
Michael Mann (MM): In reality, the “Hockey Stick” (or indeed, the “Hockey Steam” of dozens of reconstructions published over the decade and a half since our original work by other scientists arriving at the same conclusions) has never been the central pillar of evidence for human-caused climate change that the critics make it out to be. There are dozens of independent lines of evidence that human beings are warming the planet and changing the climate through fossil fuel burning and other activities. However, the Hockey Stick demonstrates in a very visual, easily understood way how unprecedented the human-caused warming of the planet is. That made it a threat to vested interests opposed to taking action to curb carbon emissions. And thus did I find myself in the center of the larger campaign to discredit climate change, as I describe in the book. I was surprised at the time that the attacks were so nasty, ad hominem, and factually challenged. Perhaps I should not have been however. I have grown to realize that there is virtually nothing polluting interests won’t stoop to in their efforts to fool the public and policymaker about the threat posed by climate change.
DD: In your opinion, is climate change scholarship necessarily political in today’s world? Do climate scholars have a duty to influence policy?
MM: Unfortunately, it has become political, because vested interests have sought to divide the public on the issue, recognizing that a divided public is all you need to insure inaction. It wasn’t too long ago that there were politicians on “both sides of the aisle” who recognized the need to act on the climate change threat. In my book, I describe how former Republican House Science Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) defended climate science and scientists when they were under attack by some of his fellow republicans. In this environment, it is essential that scientists and science communicators fight back against the politically-motivated attacks on their science. I expand on this theme in my op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year, entitled “If you see something, say something." I argue that if scientists do not attempt to inform the public discourse over this vital issue, then we all lose out because this creates a void which will readily be filled by those with an agenda of denial and inaction.
"We must strive to communicate effectively but honestly, even in the face of an opposition that is unfettered by this latter constraint."
DD: Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson has called for more climate scholars to popularize climate issues as he has popularized astronomy. You are perhaps the world’s most famous climate scientist. How would you respond to Tyson? How can climate scholars connect with a sceptical public?
MM: Well, I doubt I’m the world’s most famous scientist, but I appreciate the thought! I naturally agree with deGrasse Tyson (and I’m very much an admirer of his efforts to communicate science to the public), and indeed this was a primary focus of my recent New York Times op-ed. The late Stephen Schneider spoke eloquently of the double ethical bind that we face: we must strive to communicate effectively but honestly, even in the face of an opposition that is unfettered by this latter constraint. We must convey what is known in plainspoken jargon-free language, while acknowledging the real uncertainties that exist. Further, we must explain the implications of those uncertainties, which in many cases imply the possibility of greater, not lesser, risk. Finally, we must not be averse to discussing the policy implications of the science, lest we fail to provide our audience with critical information that can help them make informed choices about their own actions as citizens.
DD: Scholars in more and more disciplines are now considering issues related to climate change. As a scientist, what kind of scholarship in “non-scientific” disciplines do you find most interesting?
MM: Well, I’m very much a believer in the importance of interdisciplinary research, and climate change is an example of an area of science where interdisciplinary approaches are critical. Obviously, there is physics, chemistry, and math involved--and also biology, since life plays an active role in the climate system (e.g. the carbon cycle). But because climate change impacts so many aspects of life, i.e. human health, water resources, food, land, national security and conflict, and our economy, it is also critical that we interact with scientists in the social sciences, i.e. economics, sociology, political science, and psychology. Beyond this, however, are the ethical dimensions of the problem, i.e. how to balance the interests of the developed world and the developing world, how to balance the costs today with the costs that will be born by future generations. So disciplines of the humanities such as ethics, are critical. And of course, in communicating the science and its implications to the public, we must work with experts in communication and the arts. In my own efforts, both research and outreach, I find myself interacting with individuals in literally every one of the fields and disciplines mentioned above.
"There has been a temporary slowdown in warming . . . . The slowdown is almost certainly fleeting."
DD: Is there a “pause” in global warming? What does the controversy about a pause reveal both about climate science and its “sceptics?”
MM: There has been a temporary slowdown in warming, what I refer to as a “faux pause” in my Scientific American article earlier this year. The slowdown is almost certainly fleeting, due to a number of natural factors (La Niña, downturn in solar output, and an increase in volcanic activity) that have temporarily masked some of the warming that otherwise would have taken place. This is likely coming to an end. 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record.
However, with climate change deniers, this has never been about the science. They’ll typically grab onto any misleading talking point or myth that they think they can invoke to manufacture doubt about human-caused climate change. So we can expect that when 2014 sets a new global temperature record, they’ll move on to other misleading talking points.
DD: Finally: what are you currently working on?
MM: Lots of different things. I am working on a number of different projects that deal with climate change impacts on human health, and water resources, efforts to isolate the true impacts of natural climate variability in recent decades, and work aimed at understanding the factors behind the natural climate changes of past centuries. And of course, there is teaching, advising, and public outreach and communication. Suffice it to say, I manage to keep busy!
Conversations with the most innovative scholars and biggest newsmakers in climate change research and policy.