Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Climate Change

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” wrote 19th century U.S. poet Emily Dickinson. Some dinosaurs (we now know that they had feathers) might disagree. But hope and the ability to flee from gales, hot lands and stormy seas is all that people living in nations impacted by climate change have. At the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, the vice chair of the Alliance of Small Island States said “unless emissions can be drastically and quickly curbed, efforts by small island nations to adapt to climate change may be in vain,” Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.

The scientific evidence for the human contribution to climate change is substantial and increasing. “Last year’s record global heat, extreme heat over Asia, and unusually warm waters in the Bering Sea would not have been possible without human-caused climate change, according to new research in Explaining Extreme Events in 2016 from a Climate Perspective,” a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society issued on 13 December.  No matter where we live we are affected, but locations near the sea are especially vulnerable. Ask Dominica. Ask Barbuda.

Around the world there are “a growing number of lawsuits against governments over their failure to act swiftly to curb climate change,” Thomson Reuters Foundation also reported. A group of 21 people between 10 and 21 years old are suing the U.S. government, arguing that “through its actions that drive climate change” the government “has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.” Two environmental groups are suing Norway for “breaching the constitutional right to a healthy, safe environment—and violating it pledges under the Paris climate agreement—by letting energy firms explore for oil and gas in the Arctic Barents Sea.” Irish citizens are challenging the Irish government, and Dutch citizens have filed a case against the government in The Netherlands.  But lawsuits are not enough.

Communities, even entire populations may be forced to relocate to escape the global forces (see the U.S. story below). But as an nation like Kiribati contemplates removal to Fiji, where it has bought land (, it will need also to move archives—of government, business, faith-based organizations, civil society, personal papers. This requires planning and resources, now not later. While some wealthy countries may be able to solve these problems themselves, others will not. The International Council on Archives and UNESCO should convene a special meeting of the national archivists of nations in danger from countrywide climate change, with a special focus on island nations, to discuss the risks and develop strategies for preserving archives. ICA and UNESCO should help archivists, archival institutions, and their governments understand the impending changes, the threats to archives, and the options available. They should help nations find funds and partners to take such steps as the country believes are necessary. This is no less than preserving the memory of the world in the largest sense.

And, while we do that, it is essential that archivists everywhere ensure that the records documenting the scientific evidence for climate change and the actions citizens take to lessen its impact—including those lawsuits--are safely preserved. Hope may be a thing with feathers, but remember the dinosaurs. It takes planning and action to make hope molt its feathers and develop into real archival preservation.