Challenges of Climate Change

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Eira Tansey about archives, archivists, and climate change. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

Perhaps one of the most under-documented topics in the archival literature is how climate change will affect archives. This is a distressing gap in our professional discourse, because the effects of climate change present serious threats to archival repositories across the world, as well as within the United States. Even as records of warmest global temperatures on record keep climbing, our profession has not taken the necessary steps to secure our staff, repositories, and records against the threats posed by rising sea levels and increasingly severe catastrophic weather.

According to the US Global Change Research Program’s 2014 National Climate Assessment, more than 50% of Americans live in coastal communities (p. 88). The threats of sea-level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change pose real and near-term threats to thousands of miles of America’s coastline:

More than 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion of property and     structures are at risk of inundation from sea level rise of two feet above current sea level – which could be reached by 2050 under a high rate of sea level rise, by 2070 assuming a lower rate of rise, and sooner in areas of rapid land subsidence. Roughly half of the vulnerable property value is located in Florida (p. 90).

In addition to sea-level rise, the increasing severity of disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires threaten large areas of the United States. The Northeast and Midwest are experiencing heavier downpours (which can lead to flooding and erosion), and projections indicate we are likely to experience more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and larger and more frequent wildfires (pp. 25-27, 53). It can often take archives years to recover from floods and hurricanes, assuming these events do not result in a total loss. Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures that wrought devastation on the libraries and archives of the Gulf South resulted in a years-long recovery effort, even among the largest research libraries.

Few archives exist as independent entities — most archives are part of a larger parent organization, whether a government, university, corporation, museum, or other institution. The lessons archivists have learned from advocacy activities demonstrate that we must continually make the case for support to a wide variety of stakeholders who often do not prioritize archives. It is time for us to critically examine how our parent institutions have begun planning for adaptation to climate change. If you work in a geographically vulnerable area, how is your institution’s relationship with state emergency management officials? What disaster and adaptation plans are in place? Where do archives and archivists fit into the puzzle?

The archival community will have to reckon with both short- and long-term challenges in the context of climate change. Short-term, we must ensure a robust level of disaster preparation and management. Long-term, we may face agonizing questions about relocation of records to safer places. Outside of our profession, we must call on our country’s leaders to commit to reduction of carbon emissions, and we must stand with others to demand better infrastructure so that our most vulnerable citizens and most cherished sites remain safe.

 

Eira Tansey works as the Digital Archivist/Records Manager at the University of Cincinnati. She chairs the Protect Committee of ProjectARCC, and is currently conducting research on the climate change impacts on American archives.

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Acting on Climate Change within the Archival Profession

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Casey E. Davis of Project ARCC about archives, archivists, and climate change. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

In October 2014, my employer (WGBH) held an event called Green Media Innovation IdeaLab, where climate scientists came to speak about how public media can play a role in bringing about more awareness and understanding of climate change. I actually didn’t attend the event. I didn’t consider climate change an important, imminent threat or issue. And I didn’t know much about it, either.

About a week after the event, my boss, who had attended the event, shared with me some of what she learned, specifically some of the more recent research by climate scientists on how quickly our planet and climate are changing, as well as how we will experience severe climate disruption even in our own lifetimes. To be honest, climate change had rarely ever crossed my mind. But it got me thinking, and because I’m a worry wart, it got me to worrying. And that’s an understatement.

The worrying actually got the best of me for a couple of months. But eventually I decided I needed to redirect my feelings and seek to learn as much as possible about the issue, with the goal of informing myself about how I can affect climate change on a personal level. I read the research, and a lot of climate scientists’ and activists’ blogs. I read the entire Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which cited more than 12,000 scholarly articles and was written by 242 lead authors and 436 contributing authors. The report unequivocally determined that 1) the human cause of climate change is clear; 2) emissions are the highest in history and are unprecedented over millenia; 3) the oceans and atmosphere have warmed and sea levels are rising; 4) continued carbon emissions will cause severe, dangerous and irreversible effects; and 5) action to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions needs to happen NOW. After absorbing all of this information, I learned that half of United States senators don’t think that climate change is caused by humans. Some don’t even think climate change is happening.

All the while I was reading and learning about climate change, I did so while wearing my archivist hat. I immediately wondered, “Why isn’t this a core issue of activism within the archival profession?” As someone responsible for the long-term preservation of history for the future, I thought about how archivists should be as passionate about preserving a safe and habitable future for humanity.

I identified four areas in which there is need for focus within the archival profession around the issue of climate change, and together with about 55 other archivists have since formed ProjectARCC.

ProjectARCC is a task force of archivists striving to motivate the archival profession to affect climate change. Our mission is four-fold:

 

  1. Protect our collections from the impact of climate change through education and disaster mitigation
  2. Find ways to reduce our professional carbon and ecological footprint
  3. Elevate our relevant collections through exhibits, reference resources and visualization tools to increase public awareness and understanding of climate change
  4. Collaborate with climate activists and scientists to preserve this epochal moment in history for future research and understanding

 

Last year we began working on these four areas of our mission and are sharing progress on our website at projectarcc.org. Anyone in the profession is welcome to get involved. There are many ways to contribute, and you don’t have to be a climate change expert to do so. We’re all learning together and through our collaboration are making an impact.

 

As is evident from our first ProjectARCC tweet-up to #preserveclimate, climate change is already on the minds of many archivists. Some may feel uncertain, helpless, or fearful of what is to come. Naomi Klein writes that “fear makes us run, it makes us leap… but we need somewhere to run to. Without that, fear is only paralyzing.” If you read the literature and find yourself paralyzed, ProjectARCC is that destination for archivists. Together we are mobilizing the profession to act on climate to ensure the sustainability of our collections, our profession, and life on Earth. Join us and make a difference.

Casey E. Davis, Founder and Chair of the Preserve Committee, ProjectARCC