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From the President and CEO: Meeting the Climate Change Challenge

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

AAM’s vision is “a just and sustainable world informed and enriched by thriving museums that contribute to the resiliency and equity of their communities.” I am constantly impressed and inspired by how museum professionals embody this aspiration.

For instance, I recently had the privilege of presenting Kristen Greenaway, President and CEO of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, with the National Maritime Historical Society’s Distinguished Service Award. One of the many impressive accomplishments that earned her the award was her work on the museum’s sustainability initiatives. The museum has been building toward several ambitious goals, including eliminating single-use plastics across its campus, composting all food waste, and educating visitors on sustainable best practices they can adopt themselves. Kristen believes that, with a mission so closely tied to waterways, the museum has a responsibility to lead the way on keeping them clean and healthy.

An increasing number of museums are treating environmental sustainability as an essential part of their missions, too. As the evidence grows that urgent action is required, it’s not only science museums and nature centers emphasizing the issue, but also those with less obvious parallels, like art museums and historic houses. Across the spectrum, Alliance members are stepping up to do their part, looking both inward and outward in the process.

Museums have at least two roles to play in fighting climate change: one in examining and reducing their own carbon footprints and another in educating the public on the issues and what they can do to make change. The work must be holistic, demonstrating a real commitment to sustainability and encouraging that commitment from others at the same time.

Climate change is nothing if not a holistic issue, one that intersects with many more problems than meet the eye. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, prioritize not just steps like reducing food waste and adopting clean energy sources, but also reducing inequality and enhancing public services around the world. A growing climate justice movement acknowledges that while climate change impacts everyone, it disproportionately impacts some, like people of color, Indigenous groups, young children and older adults, and the economically insecure.

In other words, climate change is a complex issue, with many different entry points to understanding and action. Because of that, all museums can find a way into it that is suited for their unique missions and circumstances. How each museum responds will be different, but we all have a responsibility to do so as part of our commitments to serving the public good.

This complexity, while empowering in one sense, can also feel overwhelming. The scale, gravity, and intricacy of climate change can be so hard to fathom that we adopt an all-or-nothing attitude and refrain from acting at all. We can’t let this happen. In the face of such a daunting problem, the answer is always to start somewhere.

As your Alliance, we will help you find essential resources to achieve greater sustainability, whether you’re just starting out or advancing an existing initiative. After reading about the inspiring work of your peers in this issue, we hope you will continue your journey by consulting some of the other resources available through our website, such as the Climate Toolkit, which we’ve partnered with Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens Conservation International to distribute. The toolkit adapts the UN’s goals into specific measures that museums, gardens, and zoos can take. For ongoing, peer-to-peer discussions, you can join our Environment and Climate Network, where you will find a rich community of museum professionals discussing how their institutions can be at the center of climate solutions. We hope all of this empowers you to do the great work you’re capable of, and we look forward to hearing about it soon.

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