Climate change and museums in France, by Marine Soichot

29 06 2009

I am a PhD student in museum studies at the national Natural History Museum in Paris (France) and my work is on how science museums and science centres can be a place to display climate change.  Bridget asked me for a short presentation of my work for this blog. After a long first draft, I split it into three smaller posts. Here is the first one, a short description of the climate change problem in the French context.

Although the scientific label of climate change is powerful, stakes in this problem largely overrun the traditional academic research field. There are many political, economical and social implications. The problem is all the more impregnating in all fields of society as the focus is on carbon and energy. Climate change has become a subject of public debate and authority interventions and now a full public problem as called by political science. A multiplicity of actors – scientists, politicians, think tanks, companies, journalists and media, NGOs etc. – takes part in the public debate and build together what we call climate change.  The final construction is different depending on who participates in it and on how they participate.

Climate change was first introduced in the scientific and diplomatic sphere (first international discussion in the late 1970 and creation of the IPCC in 1988). Then the problem was developed at a national scale. In France, different actors converged. There was no strong opposition to climate change such as the skeptic movement in the US. Climate change was early recognized as a true problem by scientists, media, politicians and NGO (that is not to mean that there was an early political action to deal with it). In a simplistic way, the following points structure main discourses about climate change in France:

  • We observed a rise of average temperature over several decades. This increase is caused by human activities and first of all by fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, more and more green house gases are released making the atmosphere warmer and warmer.
  • This rise of temperature will cause climate modifications whose consequences are various: sea level rising, ice melting, species extinction and biodiversity loss, storms and flooding.
  • It will affect human society in many ways. It is an emergency. We have to act now and cut off our green house gas emissions at any level.
  • Everybody has a share of responsibility in this problem and has to act at his own level. We all have to change our way of life and become an eco-citizens.

Climate change is also strongly linked with sustainable development and the idea of a new green way of life. It is becoming a cause without opponent such as road safety or genetic diseases.  That is not to say there are no oppositions or controversies but they are limited in specific fields and given low publicity in the public sphere. This situation is quite different from the way climate change was developed in other countries. Indeed, a public problem is different in each country because of the history and the culture.

Marine Soichot

The sea, the sea

3 06 2009

Slaughden lost to the seaMIT have developed a new, more accurate model for predicting climate change. Using it, scientists now have strong evidence that there is a 90% chance that the global temperature rise will be in the range of 3.5-7.4 C degrees temperature increase by 2100. The emissions reduction policies of the world’s powers are based on a notion that the temperature increase will be around 2C. John Holdren, President Obama’s environmental advisor  tells us that 30 million years ago, when it was 3C warmer than it is now, the sea levels were 30 metres higher than they are now. That doesn’t mean that a 3C increase will result in similar sea level rises, but it shows us how Earth is not a stable place but capable of massive disruptive changes.

Many scientists have previously warned that the official prediction of a 2C warming is highly conservative, and also Stern’s report makes clear that urgent reduction of carbon emissions is necessary to avoid the devastating effects of 2C, so this new prediction may not come as a great shock to some. But it should be a shock to Governments and corporations who have put economic growth ahead of sustainability.

One of the most important elements in this scenario is the sea. Here are a few reasons why:

The well known reason that melting polar ice caps cause rising sea levels.

Climate disruption leads to more violent and unpredictable storms which cause erosion and flooding of coastal and river areas.

If the sea runs out of edible fish stocks, we will eat more farmed meat. This will lead to more forest clearance. Farm animals emit more carbon emissions globally than flying.

Phytoplankton in the oceans acts as a greater carbon sink than any terrestrial vegetation. Pollution and plastic deplete the quantity of phytoplankton.

The more we develop coastal wilderness, the less resistant is the land to flooding and erosion.

There are many more reasons why we should pay attention to marine and coastal conservation.   That’s why I went to lobby Parliament on May 13th to make final adjustments to the draft of the Marine Bill. This Bill includes ambitions  to create a single authority for UK Marine and Coastal management and to ensure more ecologically significant sites are protected. I was lucky enough to meet my MP, Joan Ruddock, who is also the Under Secretary for Climate Change and Energy. She has held ministerial offices in environmental policy for some years and is a botanist by training so is extremely sympathetic to the ecological cause. She talked about the work they are engaged in with Obama and the UN to combat climate change. From that level, the conversation managed to get onto museums. I said I was concerned that the DCMS sector was responding to the climate crisis in a rather unco-ordinated, slow and unrigorous way. She said that she loved the Horniman Museum and Kew Gardens but rarely had time to enjoy them. I pointed out that museums, heritage bodies and botanical gardens have a much greater role than providing leisure activities, but she immediately agreed that they contribute in very serious ways to scientific research, to environmental conservation and to archiving knowledge that might be lost in any kinds of collapsed society or environment. We should be doing more to increase public understanding of that role, to raise the credibility and sense of purpose of the cultural sector.

I’m writing a book on threatened coastal heritage and the role of culture (artists, museums, creative community activists) in protecting that heritage and helping us cope with the loss of it. This is one way I can help to raise awareness of the value of the cultural & heritage sectors in that respect.


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