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Science Museum has a vital role in the climate change debate

Guardian Environment 26th June 2009

One hundred years after it first opened its doors, the Science Museum is more relevant than ever.

A mischievous deity, determined to confront humanity with an especially vexed challenge, would ensure that the nature of the problem was complex and scientific and that the connection between the underlying personal actions and their consequences was not obvious. The sneaky god would also ensure that convincing evidence for the problem would emerge almost too late for a response, that there would be vested interests motivated to sow doubt and confusion, that there would be no self-correcting market mechanism, and that there would be inadequate or absent instruments and institutions to support effective action.

No wonder then that decarbonising the world's energy system to avoid dangerous climate change is proving to be intractable, for it embodies all these features. Despite the rhetoric and a host of initiatives by individuals, corporations and governments, human carbon emissions continue to increase, with no sign of the essential peak and decline. The latest research indicates that if the maximum does not occur by 2015, we will almost certainly have committed ourselves to changes in weather patterns that will adversely affect our food and water supplies, as well as triggering an ineluctable, long-term rise in world sea level.

One hundred years ago the future looked brighter. Our forebears saw science and engineering as the means to improve the human condition. They celebrated the fruits of industrialisation in cathedrals of innovation, such as the Science Museum. The practitioners were the celebrities of the day, and people flocked to see the wonders that were shaping the future. Many were inspired to become the scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who designed and built the modern world.

So as the Science Museum enters its second century today, what is its role? I believe little has changed from a century ago, except for the degree of urgency. Our unique collection provides us with a powerful means to make sense of the science that shapes our lives. We seek to raise curiosity and release creativity, and to do so in a way that engages and inspires our visitors to participate in shaping the future.

In particular, our climate change gallery, currently being designed, aims to change the way people think, talk and act about climate change. A glimpse into the museum's enormous reserve collection of objects (only 6% of the collection is on public display), or along the 20km of historical books and technical documentation in our library, can quickly convince of the ability of the scientists and engineers of the world to develop the array of technical solutions that can make a sustainable future possible.

What is not clear, is whether humanity has the capacity to marshal this technical capability and to exploit it in time. This is where the role of the museum as a trustworthy source of information, and its track record of presenting a balanced view of the evidence will be especially valuable in stimulating public debate. With many experts viewing the upcoming UN's Copenhagen Conference in December this year as "the last chance saloon" to put in place the international negotiating mechanism without which a globally coordinated effort cannot take place, the importance of such debate is paramount.

The Science Museum may be 100 years old, but it has never been more relevant.

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