COP26, climate action and cultural institutions

COP26, climate action and cultural institutions

COP26 will be held in Glasgow from 31 October - 12 November, but what is a COP, and why is it important? From the 1970s onwards, there was growing recognition that human demands on the environment – or rather, our economic approach to the environment – were beyond the environment’s limits. A series of high-level conferences and reports through the ’70s and ’80s identified a growing need for international co-operation to address this situation. This resulted in the so-called Rio Earth Summit of 1992, where the member countries of the United Nations sought to agree on a new path.

Henry McGhie
Henry at a United Nations ‘Action for Climate Empowerment’ Workshop in 2018, Bonn, courtesy of UNFCCC Download 'Henry McGhie_Blog.jpg'
"Every institution – including museums – and every individual has a part to play." - Henry McGhie

The Summit resulted in three conventions, which are binding treaties under international law. The best known is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the least known is the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The third convention is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention – as with many international agreements – is not a huge weighty volume, it is a mere 25 pages long. Its ultimate objective is “to achieve ... stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Among the commitments that signatory countries made was to meet annually to monitor progress and agree on further programmes of activity to achieve the goal of the convention. Their meetings are called ‘COP’, meaning ‘Conference of the Parties’. COP26 is the 26th meeting, since the first one in 1995. Notable COPs were COP3, where the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, and COP21, where the Paris Agreement was negotiated. Each of these are further steps to try to address the great, many-headed challenge of climate change.

I have been working on climate change and museums for 20-odd years, and on sustainability topics throughout my career, first as an ecologist, then as a museum curator and manager. I became very focussed on how museums can contribute to sustainable development agendas. Why? Because museums have a lot to offer these agendas. Collections are knowledge and inspiration resources that can further public education and awareness, and research. They can support public participation in decision making and shaping policies and facilitate cross-sector working involving the public, specialists and policy makers. In a society with limited civic space, places where people come together, such as museums and libraries, can play important roles as information hubs, and places where people share their own views, concerns and ideas about the world and the future. The need for these kind of spaces is already recognised in the world of climate action. The UNFCCC includes a specific article on the importance of public education, awareness, training of staff, public access to information, public participation and international co-operation on climate change matters.

In 2019 I set up Curating Tomorrow, as a consultancy to focus my time and energy on empowering museums to connect with sustainable development agendas, including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and climate action. I’ve been at the last two COPs, and have been invited to contribute to three of the UN Climate Change conferences in Bonn. This helped contribute to the recognition of museums, cultural and educational institutions in the Work Programme for the Paris Agreement, adopted at COP24 in Katowice, Poland.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working as part of the team behind Reimagining Museums for Climate Action, aiming to inspire radical climate action in and with museums before, during and after COP26. The team is headed up by Professor Rodney Harrison (UCL, and UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Priority Area Leadership Fellow for Heritage), and Colin Sterling at the University of Amsterdam), and our work is funded by the AHRC. In this time, we launched an international design and ideas competition on International Museum Day 2020, which received 264 submissions from 48 countries. Eight teams were subsequently invited to develop exhibits which are now on show in Glasgow Science Centre in an exhibition called Reimagining Museums for Climate Action. The exhibition aims to encourage people to question what kinds of museum they need to meet the requirements and realities of climate action.

The Science Centre is the official public-facing aspect of COP26, referred to as the ‘Green Zone’. During COP26, the Reimagining Museums for Climate Action exhibition will be animated by a group of students from the University of Glasgow School of Education, and some additional partners. Rodney and I will also run a two-hour event in the UK Research and Innovation stand on Sunday 7. We will also contribute to two museum sector conferences: the International Council of Museums Science Museums conference (Sunday 7 November), and the UK Museums Association conference (Tuesday 9 November) with contributions from partners in Brazil and New York.

An exhibit at Glasgow Science Centre as part of the Reimagining Museums for Climate Action exhibition (Photograph taken by Jonathan Gardner, Reimagining Museums for Climate Action) Download 'Henry McGhie.png'

Given the uncertainty and constraints of the pandemic, we also developed an extensive website featuring over 70 concepts from the competition. The project has also developed a book edited by Rodney and Colin, and a practical ‘toolbox’ that I have written and these will be launched during COP26.

The official part of COP is called the ‘Blue Zone’. This is run by the UN and is where politicians, policy makers and civil society representatives meet for formal presentations and negotiations. Rodney and I will be presenting in the Blue Zone, in an event organised by the EU on cultural heritage and climate action.

My Churchill Fellowship has been rather strange, as it was awarded in early 2020, and so I haven’t yet been able to travel. This has not stopped me from stretching myself to think about what is needed to make sure that decision-making in and after the crisis helps build resilience in the face of climate change and other sources of risk. I published two free guides for museums last year, on Museum and Disaster Risk Reduction (which is a resilience-building approach) and Museums and Human Rights: human rights as a basis for public service. The thinking I have to do for these contributes to my work and to what I will do when I am eventually able to travel, although my plans have changed a bit.

So, what does a UN conference have to do with an independent museum consultant? Actually, quite a lot. COP is an incredible meeting of people from a wide range of sectors and different countries. Different stakeholder groups come together to talk about climate action from public education, participation, civil society, research, business and political perspectives, and to shape the next steps and agree on our own pathways of action. The so-called ‘mini-lateral’ action of NGOs and diverse groups and individuals is a crucial part of the engine that drives climate action and that seeks to address this great challenge.

In terms of COP26, if I had a magic wand, all of the countries would honour their existing commitments – made nearly 30 years ago – and make sure that every penny spent in the recovery from Covid-19 is money that is supporting, rather than impeding, climate action.

I would also like to emphasise that climate action is not only for two weeks in November, or to be put solely in the hands of governments. Every institution – including museums – and every individual has a part to play. In fact, the right to a clean, safe, healthy environment was recently recognised by the UN Human Rights Council. I hope that these rights can become our reality, and that every institution is empowered to know what it can do, and support all of society in the quest for a better, fairer, sustainable future.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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