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Extreme weather events are tearing apart communities globally, forests and towns are engulfed in fire in California and Oregon, as well as in Turkey, Russia, Italy and Greece. Unprecedented heat waves in the Pacific Northwest led to the death of hundreds of residents and left shellfish “cooked” alive on the rocky shoreline. Hurricane Ida threatened vulnerable communities in Louisiana and brought torrential rainfall in the Northeast followed by deadly flooding. The existential threat of the climate crisis is acute. It is no longer at our doorstep but has effectively walked into our homes and made itself comfortable in our living rooms.
This crisis, of course, also threatens the future of our cultural heritage. As conservators and cultural heritage professionals we must regard combatting this crisis as integral to upholding our pledge to protect and preserve the invaluable and irreplaceable legacy of cultural heritage for future generations. Important progress has been made by both professional organizations and individuals over the last several decades; however, we are only just beginning to see a major paradigm shift in how the field at large views its role in addressing the climate crisis.
In October IIC, ICCROM, and ICOM-CC announced a Joint Committee on Climate Action In Cultural Heritage. This was followed by Culture at COP26 an initiative of Climate Heritage Network and Museum Galleries Scotland which brought arts and cultural heritage to the influential UN summit. Culture at COP26’s website includes a copy of Climate Heritage Network’s recently published manifesto “Accelerating Climate Action through the Power of Arts, Culture and Heritage” which states:
“Integrating natural and cultural values highlights linkages between the ecological and social functions of landscapes in ways that promote lifestyles in harmony with nature...Cultural heritage holds peoples’ stories and the knowledge of local communities (what the Paris Agreement calls ‘endogenous technologies’). We recognize the profound connection between cultural rights, cultural survival, and climate action. We also consider this Manifesto to be a contribution to human-centered, rights-based approaches that places culture as an explicit and operational dimension of development and provides cultural actors (civil society and institutional) a seat at the table required to make it happen.”
Several recent events are responsible for having tipped the balance, forcing these organizations to take a definitive stance. First, at the beginning of August 2021, working group 1 of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an independent review board formed by the United Nations in 1988 to evaluate research on climate change and inform policy, published its landmark sixth assessment report.
IPCC Sixth Assessment Report
The report was based on over 14,000 peer reviewed studies from 195 member countries and found:
- Human activity is the unequivocal, primary driver of atmospheric warming which in turn has resulted in observed rapid changes in global climate.
- The earth has warmed approximately 1.1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius since the mid-1800s and atmospheric warming has accelerated the most in recent decades.
- Many of the observed changes in oceans, ice sheets, and sea levels are irreversible in our lifetime.
- Under all projected scenarios, including reaching net zero carbon emissions, temperatures will continue to rise well into the mid-century with increases in temperatures surpassing 1.5-2 degree Celsius without drastic global action to reduce CO2 emissions.
The release of this sobering report was followed by COP26, a meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year was particularly charged, bolstered by the IPCC report and another record-breaking year for natural disasters related to human caused climate change. Passionate speeches and renewed pledges from world leaders, pleas from smaller nations for retribution, and one very unfortunate penguin grabbed the headlines of this year's summit. However, pledges and declarations are not guaranteed to translate into action. Experts still warn that the current pledges fall short of what is needed to keep the temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius in this century.
Major structural changes and continued engagement on an individual scale are essential in providing the pressure and momentum needed for adaptations we will all have to make now and in the future.
We must accept that if global temperatures are not kept under 1.5-2.0 degrees Celsius, entire nations will be lost, and with them their cultural heritage. Indigenous peoples' ways of life and cultural capital are eroding. Vulnerable cities across the world will also be threatened and the vibrant culture of places like Venice, Miami and New Orleans will be lost too. This process has already begun and consequences for past failure to curb human caused climate change are already being felt by communities across the globe. As professionals engaged in preservation, we possess tools and talents which can and should be leveraged for this movement. As such, we have included some inspiring resources on how to use our creativity and ingenuity as a field to combat this crisis.
AIC Sustainability Committee Webinars
Ask an Expert: Climate Activism with Museums for Future. In this chat we discussed climate activism with two experts from Museums for Future. If you are feeling stuck or unsure of where to go next with your climate action and want to expand the scope of your reach, Anna Krez and Maggie O'Donnell shared great insight about creative new directions to expand. Both are Museums for Future collaborators who discussed how they are using their roles as conservation and museums professionals to advocate for changes in political and global climate policy.
Ask an Expert: Zero Waste with Angela Moore. If you missed this session at the 2020 annual meeting you can watch it now for free. This is a fantastic conversation with Angela Moore, the Sustainability Coordinator and Project Manager for Missouri Historical Society's green building certifications, about how you can begin to go zero waste at your place of work!
ICON/AIC COP26 Collaboration. Our panelists shared their experiences of:
- Working towards becoming carbon neutral while maintaining 20% RH.
- Rethinking the products used during historic house maintenance.
- Achieving certified B corp status at an independent paintings conservation studio.
- How our field can rethink our work and expand our focus to include sustainability as art preservation.
Listen to These Podcasts and Recordings
- Conservators Combating Climate Change. Season 2 launched this Spring! Have a listen to this fantastic podcast by Natalya Swanson and Marie Desrochers. Marie and Natalya focus on the intersectional nature of sustainability work by speaking with heritage and environmental conservators, educators, architects, and engineers about ongoing collaborative projects.
- The Small Island Nations that Got Big Action on Climate from How to Save a Planet.
- Should I have kids? Move? Recycle? Your climate questions answered from It’s Been a Minute.
- “Code Red for Humanity” for a point by point breakdown of the IPCC Sixth Assessment report from The Daily and for a critical look at how corporations muddied the coverage of COP26 and the climate crisis follow up with the Heated newsletter article How Exxon Duped "The Daily.”
- JAIC Call for Papers. Authors are invited to submit an abstract (maximum 400 words) and article outline to the Sustainability Committee by January 31, 2022. Please email your abstract and outline to firstname.lastname@example.org, cc: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Complete this Venn Diagram exercise to find your role in the climate movement.
Stay tuned for more exciting conversations and content from the AIC Sustainability Committee in the new year!
—AIC's Sustainability Committee