By Emilie Holland Baliozian
Studying climate change in an academic setting can at times let you forget that it is actually happening. You understand the science behind climate change and have the concepts from your coursework down. Yet, as soon as you step out of the classroom, the astounding complexity of our reality hits you. Moreover, even if you can wrap your head around it, climate change becomes deceptively harder to talk about. I myself am a victim of the “climate silence.”
Climate change is an existential threat, and each day we actively contribute to it, so it’s no surprise that we as a society don’t want to think or talk about it. It doesn’t help that it’s a politically polarizing issue.
I’m a recent graduate of the Sustainable Development program at Columbia’s Earth Institute (class of 2018). My classes taught me the importance of identifying ‘science’ and language that is meant to mislead the public. I have also learned to distill raw, accurate scientific information for public consumption by saying just enough to hook an audience, but not too much to lose them—or scare them away. Building on my experience at Columbia, I aim to change the climate conversation and break the “climate silence.”
During Christmas break of my senior year, I decided that developing and running a sustainable development museum would be one of my long-term career goals. Museums are trusted cultural institutions; they are a destination for personal reflection and collective learning. While doing my research, I was surprised to learn that, of all places, New York City did not have a museum on sustainable development. I took that absence as an opportunity to step in.
Later in the year, however, I stumbled upon the website of the Climate Museum. Thinking my idea had been taken, I thought of finding a new focus. Yet, my reaction was foolish: could there really be a shortage of sustainability museums in the world? Joining the Climate Museum Summer Internship program was thus the obvious and ideal next step for me.
The mission of the Climate Museum is to employ science, art, and design to inspire dialogue and innovation that address the challenges of climate change. It draws on the power of art, stories, artifacts, and science to communicate the effect of climate change and inspire solutions. The museum is in the early stages of development, currently presenting programming in temporary spaces in NYC before finding a permanent home in the city.
As a research intern, I was initially tasked with researching climate change denial and its impacts on the political climate of the United States. Over the course of my internship, however, I grew into the utility player. I knew as soon as I handed in my application that I had signed up to be in a dynamic environment. No two days were the same, and I strongly embraced the variety of tasks that were sent my way.
Throughout it all, staying true to the narrative and mission of the Climate Museum was of paramount importance. The museum covers climate change—an issue that is decidedly controversial, though it doesn’t need to be. With that in mind, I had to remain as apolitical as possible when speaking on its behalf. This was the case at outreach events just as it was on social media.
Throughout these past few months as an intern, I got to witness the unwavering support that environmentalist groups, foundations, and individuals continue to demonstrate to the cause. It is an environment in which people sign their emails with “in solidarity” and volunteer their services to the museum because they see its true potential in changing the climate dialogue. This kind of work environment makes it almost impossible to give in to anxiety induced by climate change.
Furthermore, my position was only temporary, but I felt fully integrated from day one. My team was focused, uplifting, and mostly female. I have unyielding admiration for the director of the museum, Miranda Massie, who has a fascinating story to share and an endless supply of support to offer. Again, working in this environment made it easy to fight off cynicism; passion and dedication are contagious at the Climate Museum.
I have no doubt the Climate Museum will become a major cultural institution in New York City. Because it is still in its early stages of development, the bulk of my work involved laying the foundation for long-term projects. Fortunately, I experienced major milestones from the inside, and cannot wait to witness more from the outside.
In the future, I expect to find myself attributing my success to my education at the Earth Institute and to my experience at the Climate Museum. My next few years will be dedicated to developing professional experience in the field of climate communications. The museum offered me an entrance into that field, and the Sustainable Development program handed me the tools to navigate it with confidence.
I left both places knowing my relationship with them will never sever. “Our paths will cross again” were Miranda’s parting words. With a degree in hand, and with Miranda and her team as powerful allies, I will strive to break the climate silence in my own way.
Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact program manager Cari Shimkus at firstname.lastname@example.org.