Future Tense

A Museum of the Future

A New York City museum will show visitors the effects of climate change.

penguins during ZSL London Zoo.
The proposed Climate Museum, in theory, would look to the future to inform the present. Above, a zoo in London in 2014.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Museums are usually dedicated to keeping the past alive, but New York City is on track to get one dedicated to preserving the future—or, at least, a version of it that our descendants want to live in.

Over the summer, the New York State Board of Regents approved a charter for a museum focused on our climate and the changes humanity is forcing on it. Though most Americans worry about the environment and vaguely support government action to deal with climate change, mustering the political capital to actually put fixes in place is a task that has eluded politicians again and again. New York’s Climate Museum proposes to present a range of possible solutions agnostically—simply educating Americans on the pros and cons of each, without the political freight.

Of course, this isn’t a new mission: For more than two decades, scientists, activists, and some politicians have been sounding the alarm on climate change. Happily, the last year has seen quite a bit of progress, with big polluters like China, the U.S., and India all announcing historic action to cut emissions—but we haven’t done nearly enough to save ourselves. Scientists say that if governments carry through with everything they’ve said they’ll do to green their economies—far from a sure bet—we’re still on track for 2.7 degrees of warming by 2100, leaving our descendants with a quite different and much less habitable planet. Governments continue to fumble the ball on this one, and most Americans, by and large, still aren’t taking notice. That’s where the museum comes in. If the team behind the museum realizes its plans, the museum will certainly help change the conversation America is having about climate change—and that’s something the world urgently needs to happen.

Generally, museums allow visitors to examine the past to understand the actions that brought us to the present. The 9/11 Memorial Museum, for instance, explains what happened on that day, who died in the attack, and how we are different now as a result of what happened. The Climate Museum, in theory, would do the opposite. It would look to the future, not the past, to inform the present. The bad stuff that could happen—floods, droughts, displacement, war—will be mentioned, sure, but there will be more emphasis on the many solutions that would allow us to avoid that bad stuff. It’s a sort of choose-your-own-adventure experience: By showing us positioned at the nexus of many possible futures, the Climate Museum, ideally, would beg action.

Miranda Massie, the public interest lawyer behind the project, notes that even in the best-case scenario, we’ve already done enough damage that these forward-looking sorts of exhibits won’t be obsolete: “We could go to zero emissions tomorrow, and your kids and grandkids will still be dealing with the effects of anthropogenic climate change—it will be getting worse even though we’re doing everything exactly right.”

One good thing the project has going for it is the array of thinkers who have signaled their support for the museum. Massie has assembled boards of advisers and trustees stocked with prominent climate scientists, architects, lawyers, and activists who come with the potential for partnerships between the museum and other organizations. For example, Cynthia Rosenzweig, a veteran climate scientist who co-authored the Nobel Peace Prize–winning 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report, signed on as the museum’s first trustee and is helping the museum partner with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, one of the foremost organizations studying climate change.

Politicians and policymakers have also taken notice. On the day I met with Massie she was chatting with the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, Jim Brainard, one of a few lonely climate hawks in his party; he serves on Obama’s Task Force on Climate Change and has rebuilt large sections of his town to make them more livable and sustainable. The museum “will particularly help in the states that lean more conservative than others,” Brainard told me. “People travel to New York from all over the country, and it’s one more way to get the word out. It legitimizes the issue—the fact that there is a museum dedicated to it. And the ability [of the Climate Museum] to work with museums across the country—the average person may not be traveling to New York on a regular basis—holds unlimited possibilities.”

The team behind the project is hoping to open a 100,000-square-foot space, location still to be determined, in 2020, with the goal of attracting 1 million people a year—more than twice the number that turned out for last September’s People’s Climate March in New York.

Before then, the team will be holding early exhibitions, including a pop-up exhibition next summer on Governors Island presenting different ways the United States could dramatically cut its fossil fuel use. This will be based on an Earth Institute report, and, Massie says, “the challenge for the designers will be to take a very data-heavy reports and make it captivating and sparkling and interactive and gamified and all of that.” In 2017, the team hopes to launch an interim museum, where they’ll keep testing out different types of exhibits and public programming to see what works.

Ultimately, the museum will go after a specific audience, Massie says—a subset of Americans identified by the Yale Center on Climate Change Communication. Researchers sorted Americans into six groups—“six Americas”—based on their level of knowledge about climate change, and their attitude toward action: the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, the doubtful, and the dismissive. Over time, those groups who aren’t interested in climate action—the disengaged, the doubtful, and the dismissive—will shrink, as it becomes unavoidably clear that climate change is already occurring. (This could come to pass sooner than one might think: 2015 is on track to be the hottest year ever, winning that superlative from 2014). The museum, then, will have to reach out to groups two and three: the concerned and the cautious.

Americans in both of these groups tend to believe in climate change and worry about it, but may not yet have taken political action—such as voting for a climate hawk—to help prevent it, though they are open to societal action to prevent climate change from growing worse. Together, these two groups make up half of America and will continue to grow over time. (The “alarmed”—the group most worried about climate change—makes up another 16 percent of the country, but they don’t need a museum to coax them toward action.)

The architecture of the museum itself will play a role in inspiring visitors to get involved with the issue. The museum team will be holding competition in the next year, hoping to find a building design that will help the museum impress visitors before they even begin browsing exhibits. “It turns out that when people experience awe, which social scientists have defined in a relatively particular way, they act in a more pro-social manner,” Massie says. “Their ethical decision-making is more nuanced. We’re more likely to take community-based action.”

Design isn’t the only major detail still up in the air for the museum: Its location still needs to be determined. Finding room for a 100,000-square-foot museum in a neighborhood that tourists can get to without much trouble—that’s hard in New York City. But Massie hopes that when all is said and done, both the museum and its contents will be awe-inspiring, and that an awestruck audience—now freshly educated on personal and political actions it can take to help limit climate change—will pledge to take up the fight while on their way out the museum’s door. The nature of these pledges will be specific to the individual: Middle school science classes could pledge to research and write up a plan on how to make their school more energy efficient. College students could pledge to work on a climate hawk’s political campaign. And visiting world leaders, perhaps in town for a U.N. conference, could pledge to cut their country’s carbon footprint.

One big part of the museum will focus on the pledges that attendees have already made, connecting visitors past, present, and future. Other than that, Massie doesn’t imagine having any permanent exhibits—both the science around climate and the societal attitude toward action are evolving. Issues that are “socially charged and politically charged will change so rapidly,” Massie says. She hopes that by the time the museum opens its doors, the political controversy around climate change will be a thing of the past. “Maybe our curator and our trustees will decide that it’s a good idea to have an exhibit on the history of the ‘fake debate,’ ” she says. “ ‘How strange. Can you believe it? Somebody threw a snowball on the floor of the Senate!’ ”

But let’s say that in 2020, the politics around climate change do look similar to the way they looked in 2010 and more or less still look in 2015. In that case, the museum’s role could become even more important. If the museum does succeed in its goal of getting its 1 million visitors a year, it will be a big moment in the fight against climate change. A well-attended museum marks its topic as something society cares about—even if it’s a topic that lies in the future, one with a narrative that is still only just beginning to unfold. Museums are a measure of public interest. What’s more, the climate museum will be unique in that it will, by asking visitors to take action, play a role in determining how this story ends—and, when it comes to acting in time to avert a tragic ending on climate change, the world needs all the help it can get.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.