The international climate conference makes clear that we all must do our part to slow the climate crisis.
Last summer, when my wife and I started making arrangements to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow that November (her sixth and my fifth), the United Nations estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 would attend. But even with a global pandemic still in full swing, an unprecedented 39,509 people eventually registered for the conference—a sign of a rapidly rising apprehension about the escalating global climate crisis.
At several COP26 sessions, I spoke about the large potential for US cultural institutions to showcase climate action and to inspire Americans to meet the climate challenge. I repeatedly pointed out that cultural institutions are held in very high regard by Americans, polling well above academic institutions, the media, and all levels of government in their levels of public trust; that cultural institutions are very popular, attracting hundreds of millions of visits annually; and that Americans want their cultural institutions to provide inspiration and leadership on issues important to their lives, such as climate change.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Now we must all act on these truths to help address this worsening crisis.
What Happens at COP?
The first Conference of the Parties (COP) took place in 1995, and the one in Glasgow was the 26th meeting of the 197 nations that are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty, which seeks to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. This treaty was the outcome of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that took place in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. By spring 1994, enough nations had ratified the treaty that it became international law. The annual COP seeks to meet the treaty’s goals by setting ever higher climate commitments for all 197 nations that are signatories to the UNFCCC.
Several important processes occur simultaneously at COP meetings. Foremost are the formal negotiations, intensively covered by international media, which endeavor to craft a document that all 197 COP delegations can pass by unanimous consent. Complementing the COP negotiations are side agreement discussions and the exhibition pavilion.
The outcome of the formal negotiations at COP26 was the Glasgow Climate Pact, which achieved several milestones but two in particular. The breakthrough at the COP21 meeting in 2015 was the adoption by unanimous consent of the Paris Agreement, which permitted each nation to establish its own nationally determined contributions (NDCs) about where, when, and by how much it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement noted that implementation guidelines would eventually need to be established. The Glasgow Climate Pact finalized the Paris Rulebook—detailed guidance for countries as they each consider how to strengthen their NDCs in light of their different national circumstances.
The Paris Agreement acknowledged an aspirational goal of limiting global average temperatures from rising no more than 1.5oC (2.7oF) above pre-industrial levels but maintained 2.0oC (3.6oF) as the official international target to avoid dangerous changes to the climate system. The Glasgow Climate Pact officially establishes 1.5oC as the new international target, given that climate disasters are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity in a world that has warmed just 1.1oC (2.0ºF) from pre-industrial levels.
Although they do not reach the scale of unanimous consent, side agreements reached at COP26 among subsets of nations were nonetheless vitally important because they signified the willingness of signatories to accelerate their climate commitments beyond what is spelled out in the Glasgow Climate Pact. For instance, by the end of COP26 more than 100 nations, encompassing 86 percent of the world’s forested lands, had signed an agreement to reduce deforestation now and eliminate it entirely by 2030. And by the conclusion of COP26, more than 100 nations had signed on to a pledge to reduce emissions of methane, which has 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, by 30 percent by 2030.
So what was my path among the 40,000 people within the COP and the tens of thousands outside? As with previous COPs, I sought out in-person access to some of the latest science and bold initiatives envisioned to address climate change.
At the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Methane Moment Pavilion, for instance, I was fascinated and encouraged to learn that this October EDF will launch into space a satellite that once it becomes fully operational will provide anyone with free, high-
resolution, nearly real-time imagery of methane gas emissions virtually anywhere on the planet. In the near future, all of us will be able to access imagery of our geographic areas of interest and ask why this colorless, odorless, tasteless but very potent greenhouse gas is being allowed to escape into the atmosphere.
And at the “Culture Over Carbon: The US Cultural Sector Advancing Climate Action” session organized by Sarah Sutton, CEO of Environment & Culture Partners, Jen Kretzer from The Wild Center, Richard Piacentini from The Phipps Conservatory, and I made the case for how our institutions are using our facilities, programs, and exhibits to showcase climate action and to encourage more cultural institutions to champion urgent action to address the climate crisis.
What We Can Do
Every day of COP26 I waded through an astonishing river of dire climate change scientific updates and announcements of exciting, bold climate initiatives while looking for opportunities to make the case for how cultural institutions can accelerate an all-of-society approach to the crisis. Thinking back on all that I saw and heard in my two weeks there, three big take-aways have distilled in my mind.
Progress is being made. The Glasgow Climate Pact was a significant international achievement. Does it go far enough? No, climate change presently is outpacing international actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to increase resilience to climate change by all nations, and especially those most at risk and least responsible for causing the crisis. There is a rapidly growing international consensus, however, that subsequent COPs will accelerate climate commitments because of the realization that no nation is immune from the impacts of climate change.
Subnationals must step up. By “subnationals” I mean any individual or entity not a member of a national negotiating party, so that includes businesses, investors, health care organizations, Indigenous nations, cities, counties, states, faith groups, colleges and universities, and cultural institutions. At the COP26 meeting, the US negotiating team members, led by Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, were constantly pressing their counterparts to agree to more ambitious climate goals while looking over their metaphorical shoulders to see if they have the support and commitment back home to do so. The more we do as cultural institutions to implement, highlight, showcase, and champion climate action, the more latitude we provide the US negotiating teams to advocate vigorous international climate action at future COP conferences.
The 2020s will be decisive. Highly sophisticated models have long pointed to the likelihood that increasing global temperatures would ramp up the frequency of extreme weather events in the 2030s and 2040s. The fact that they are happening now suggests a climate system more sensitive to carbon dioxide pollution than scientists previously thought. Therefore, carbon reduction strategies are more urgently needed now. Cultural institutions should prepare their audiences for the work ahead by encouraging them both to accelerate greenhouse gas reductions to help lessen future climate changes while concurrently hastening their resilience to the changes underway and to come.
We need an all-in strategy with cultural institutions. Let’s employ our high visibility and public trust to greatly accelerate climate action and justice. Imagine the enormous environmental, economic, employment, equity, and educational potential we could have, and let’s turn imagination into reality. I look forward to working with you to do so.
The Path to Carbon Neutrality
Buildings consume 40 percent of all energy used in the US and are responsible for a comparable share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. While I applaud the design and construction of new buildings that showcase energy innovation, we are not going to build our way out of this dilemma. Existing buildings, including those occupied by cultural institutions, will need to be retrofitted. Here is what the Science Museum of Minnesota has done.
In 2008, I met with a mechanical engineer who described how it is standard operating procedure for large commercial and institutional buildings in the US to operate heating and cooling systems simultaneously, which is very expensive. Two years later, the museum had raised the necessary funds to hire this engineer to conduct a comprehensive energy analysis of our museum.
The engineer reported that the museum was using 6.5 million kWh of electricity annually. As a geographer by training, I translated that number into terms I could appreciate: the museum was using as much electricity as all of the households in a 20-block area of Saint Paul, Minnesota. The engineer also pointed out that all of this electricity eventually degraded into over 20 billion BTUs of heat energy annually. We were expelling this heat from the building and then turning around and purchasing enormous quantities of heat. Why? Because no one had previously informed us of this ridiculous situation.
Using a low-interest loan and corporate gifts, we purchased and installed two machines—heat recovery chillers—that enable the museum to extract heat from sites in the museum where electricity usage, and thus heat production, is large (e.g., elevator equipment and computer server rooms) and then transfer this heat energy to where it is needed, such as warming the fresh but cold air brought into the building in winter.
This project cost the museum $900,000, but by the first full year of operation in 2015, the museum had cut its carbon pollution by 30 percent and was saving $300,000 annually—money that now can be directed to the museum’s scientific and educational mission rather than utility bills.
Calculations finalized in January revealed that the Science Museum’s annual carbon emissions had decreased 86 percent from their peak in early 2014. In February, the museum’s senior leadership team declared that the museum will be 100 percent carbon neutral by 2030.
Please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn how the Science Museum of Minnesota calculates and monitors the carbon emissions attributable to the heating, cooling, and powering of its buildings and how your institution could do so as well. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
Science Museum of Minnesota statement
on climate change
Frankenthaler Climate Initiative