From the various interactive pieces at the Climate Museum’s latest exhibit, Taking Action, the ones that most caught my attention were the replica food items. For a change, I could touch every single display at a museum. So, I idly started lifting each food item. The fake fruits were as light as the ones my grandmother used to collect as decorative items in her bedroom.
When I tried to lift the cheeseburger, I was surprised — it was a lot heavier than I had anticipated. Afraid I might hurt my fragile wrist, I had to use both of my hands to lift the cheeseburger, as I normally would have, had it been real. Turns out, each food replica gets heavier in proportion to the amount of carbon emissions it takes to produce that food. The idea was to get me to think about how my food choices can make a difference to the planet.
The Climate Museum’s Taking Action exhibition found a temporary home on Governors Island’s sprawling and leafy Nolan Park in June. It will be open to the public until October 2019. Other than offering solutions to the ongoing climate crisis, it also delves into climate inaction, the amount of money invested in fossil fuel projects, and the lack of adequate media coverage on climate change.
Before I could leave, the volunteers encouraged me and several other visitors to sign up for some form of action — it could range from contacting my local congressperson or simply starting a conversation about climate change with three different people.
“Taking action is a real experiment for us. It’s the first time we’ve done a major exhibition that isn’t mainly framed around art,” said Miranda Massie, founder, and director of the Climate Museum. Massie and her team aim to bring a cultural change by initiating conversations around climate change and engaging the general public in possible solutions. “It’s been extraordinary how warmly our work has been received by the public. Thousands of people have come to the show, and committed to taking different kinds of civic action on the climate crisis.”
Before Massie founded the Climate Museum in 2015, she was a civil rights trial lawyer who focused on addressing social justice, particularly racial inequality. During the last few years of her life as a lawyer, she realized that the environment is fundamentally a civil rights terrain of social inequality.
“Subsequently, through that recognition, I became increasingly aware of the increasing environmental threats posed by this steroidal inequality that is going to intensify because of climate change,” recalled Massie. Hurricane Sandy sharpened this growing awareness into the understanding that when it comes to climate change, she has to bring about some form of change on her own.
A few months after the major calamity, the idea to start the Climate Museum arrived unannounced. “The idea of the museum felt like somebody else’s epiphany, not my own. I was shocked to discover there wasn’t already a museum dedicated to climate change that I could join,” added Massie.
To get started with her vision of the Climate Museum, she liquidated all of her retirement accounts. She did so with the firm belief that museums are not only deeply trusted, but also have great transformational power that could be mobilized to help individuals make the cultural shifts required to adapt to and take action on the ongoing climate crisis.
A law firm offered a rent-free office space in Lower Manhattan where the museum’s small team of people, including curators, work full-time. Massie also roped in a non-profit governance and tax law firm that provides pro-bono services.
“We have operated largely based on goodwill. We have a couple of pioneering individual donors who’ve seen the promise of the idea and supported it generously,” smiled Massie.
In the beginning, another major challenge she had to overcome was the fact that she did not have the expertise in any of the pertinent areas related to climate and environmental justice. The museum needed experts in climate science and environmental policy, among others.
In 2014, Massie approached Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and adjunct at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. Following a meeting where she explained the concept of the museum, Massie said she was thrilled when Rosenzweig immediately agreed to join as a trustee and an advisory council.
“After years of working as a climate scientist, I came to realize scientists cannot communicate the challenges of climate change or find solutions all by themselves,” said Rosenzweig, who is also the founding board member of the Climate Museum.
The role that Rosenzweig plays at the museum is to bring together the foundation of the science while working alongside both artists and other scientists. One of the initiatives she started through the Climate Museum is ‘Meet a Scientist’ day, where scientists make an active effort to engage with the public and answer any questions related to the complex field of climate science.
“I spent an entire day at Governor’s Island doing that and it was fantastic. I get the opportunity to interact with a much broader spectrum of professionals and society than I ever did in my day-to-day life as a scientist,” added Rosenzweig. She has recruited other climate scientists for ‘Meet a Scientist’ day by preparing a list of frequently asked questions, and how they can answer them clearly without getting lost in the details of the climate processes they are so immersed in.
In September 2018, the museum’s outdoor exhibition known as Climate Signals grabbed headlines in The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Artist Justin Brice Guariglia installed huge neon signs in 10 locations across the five boroughs of New York City with signs that declared, “Fossil Fueling Inequality”, “CO2 Knows No Justice”, and “Climate Change at Work”, in different languages.
“The road signs were an incredible way to grab people’s attention. Justin’s insights made this exhibition start a conversation by creating a medium to communicate important climate messages,” said Rosenzweig.
As a climate scientist, she says communicating the different levels of uncertainties continues to be a big challenge. For instance, while it is clear to scientists that global surface temperatures are rising, they find it difficult to answer questions related to extreme weather events like hurricanes. “Those findings are more uncertain. So, the challenge is to communicate that but, at the same time, give a sense that we are still learning things as scientists,” explained Rosenzweig.
While Governor’s Island has offered the Climate Museum a free space for now, Massie someday hopes to find a permanent home for it, despite the huge costs involved. She is now working towards the museum’s next stage of growth, where she hopes to increase revenues through various sources. “No matter how small our efforts might be, it’s a privilege to work on the greatest crisis that our species has ever faced,” said Massie.