Advocacy    Climate and Emergencies

What is the IPCC Report? And What Museums Can Do About it

On August 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ climate science body, released an update to its regular global climate change report. Their findings are clear – humanity must take climate action now.

Scientists forecast that to avoid catastrophic climate change, global warming must be limited to 1.5°C, the goal of 2015’s Paris Agreement, and in order to achieve this, global emissions must peak by 2025. Even with the scenario that sees humanity acting as quickly as possible, the report gives us a less than 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

In this blog post, we will break down what this report means and how museums can take action to make a real difference in the global fight against climate change.


What difference does >1.5°C make?

In a room, few of us would even notice a 2°C shift in temperature, but on a planetary scale, this increase would be disastrous. The IPCC Report describes the effects of such a temperature increase as including,

“increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost…Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.”

Unprecedented temperature increases would have unprecedented and unpredictable effects. Scientists are currently exploring how the melting of permafrost across the globe may thaw out and activate so-called “zombie viruses,” including the 1918 flu, that have been frozen in permafrost for centuries. Because climate shifts like the one we are currently experiencing have not been recorded, we cannot fully anticipate its true impact.

And soberingly, the report notes that “Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.” In other words, the actions we take, or do not take today, will impact the planet for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come.


What Can Museums Do?

The report is clear on what needs to be done. “From a physical science perspective, limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions.”

To prevent catastrophic global climate change, CO2 emissions must be dramatically limited within the next four years.

While we encourage museums to reduce their carbon footprints and become as sustainable as possible, on a global scale, we recognize that the carbon footprint of museums is small. However, by modelling climate leadership through the prioritization of sustainability, museums demonstrate why this work is important and how meaningful change is achievable.

And in addition to modelling leadership through sustainability, our sector’s greatest contribution to the fight against climate is our ability to advocate and educate.

Not all people contribute to global CO2 emissions equally, and like many challenges facing humanity, global warming is directly linked to endemic systems of capitalist exploitation, inequality, and colonialism. Carbon emissions of the richest 1% of humanity are more than double the emissions of half the planet combined – roughly 3.8 billion people. Moreover, 20 companies are responsible for nearly one-third of all global carbon emissions.

Attempts to frame climate action as solely the individual’s responsibility, fail to address the systemic inequalities of global CO2 emissions. Making the meaningful reductions in carbon emissions required to prevent global catastrophe isn’t a matter of individuals choosing to drive less or recycle more, it involves advocating for political changes that hold those who are doing the most damage to account and demanding action today. And this is where museums can help to make a difference.

Museums are one of the most trusted institutions in our society. We have a voice and people listen. Through our exhibits and programming, we can help communities better understand the threat posed by climate change. We can equip communities with actions they can take as individuals to make a difference, both in terms of becoming more sustainable and in making their voices heard politically.

And critically, in a world overrun with online misinformation and disinformation, we can use the publics’ high levels and act as community leaders in building a brighter future.

It is easy to read the IPCC report and feel overwhelmed, or even nihilistic, but it is still possible to make a difference. Overcoming complacency, inertia, and powerful forces who wish to maintain the status quo will require massive coordinated efforts, and it is critical that museums recognize our power and take action today. 

A recent study suggests that many feel hopeless in the face and magnitude of climate change (40% of Americans report feeling “helpless” and 29% report feeling “hopeless”), but our sector can help combat despair with hope. As a climate leader, your museum can cultivate collective climate action, put pressure on elected officials, celebrate success stories in your community, help your community to acknowledge sorrow, grief and uncertainty, and find opportunities for joy rather than despair.

If you feel overwhelmed by the IPCC report and the tasks that we must face, that’s completely normal. To end this post with a source of inspiration, we recommend watching this video about how a small group of radical gardeners led community action that helped to radically alter the landscape of New York City, making their community more equitable and more sustainable.

Change is possible. Even small acts of kindness, compassion and support can change the world.



We are maintaining a post exploring sustainability, education, and advocacy resources for museums here (see Climate Action Resources for Museums), but we’d like to highlight the following resources to get you started thinking about how you can take action today.


Resources to Become More Sustainable

Resources on Climate Education

For a list of museums with climate action education programs, please visit our Climate Action Resources page.

Resources for Climate Advocacy