In Our Hands
In Our Hands
Ep. 21. Miranda Massie on Curating Climate Consciousness

Ep. 21. Miranda Massie on Curating Climate Consciousness

Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Miranda Massie, founder and director of New York City’s Climate Museum.

In this episode of In Our Hands, Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Miranda Massie, visionary driving force, founder, and director of New York City’s Climate Museum. They discuss her lifelong dedication to social equity and how it transfers to her work at the Climate Museum, where she harnesses the expressive power of art to explore the simplistic yet profound mechanics of global warming and the scalable impact the arts can have in furthering climate awareness.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our firm, the Amasia blog, our climate fiction podcast, and Ramanan’s blog.

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Show Notes

(02:04) Miranda’s early life and education

(06:29) How fossil fuels disrupt weather systems

(7:20) The inspiration behind The Climate Museum

(11:14) The power of art in creating emotional connections and empowering action

(14:20) Community and creativity

(19:24) The Climate Museum: Future vision

(23:36) How to find out more about the museum

Miranda Massie (00:00): The pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels causes greenhouse gases that trap heat like a blanket in the Earth's atmosphere. And we are trapping too much energy, too much heat, and that's disrupting all of the weather systems that have developed over millennia and with which we as a species have evolved. And that's really all you need to know. Burning fossil fuels causes a heat-trapping blanket. And that's it.

Ramanan (00:27): Welcome to In Our Hands, a podcast about the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis. Each episode features a new thinker at the front lines of the battle to save our planet. Join us as we delve into the complexities of this global challenge and seek actionable ways to build a sustainable future.

Hello everyone. Welcome back to In Our Hands, where we have a very unusual episode today, a person who falls into a category that we have not touched in our journey. And that is Miranda Massie, who is the Director of the Climate Museum. In 2014, Miranda left a career in social justice law to start laying the groundwork for the museum as a civil rights impact litigator. She has many honors, including the Fletcher Foundation and the Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Public Interest Fellowships, as well as a mentorship and residence at Yale Law School.

Her previous board service includes a headstart organization for migrant farm families and the Center for Popular Democracy. She is active within several global coalitions focused on climate-oriented work in museums, and she speaks frequently on the need to integrate programming on the climate crisis across the cultural sector. Miranda, welcome.

Miranda Massie (01:45): Delighted to be here, Ramanan. Thank you for having me.

Ramanan (01:47): So you began as a history major, which as an aside for our audience is my favorite kind of major because I wanted to be one and couldn't, but transitioned into law before founding the Climate Museum. Can you talk us through your early life and education?

Miranda Massie (02:04): Yes, absolutely. I grew up the child of two artists, which became pertinent at the point in time when I started thinking about the Climate Museum.

And my study of history was rooted in a concern that I had starting as a pretty young child about social justice, and I think it's because I had the incredible good fortune of growing up in a household where I was encouraged to think critically about the world and share my opinions freely, that I developed a skeptical perspective on the inequalities that I saw in society early on as a kid and shared them frequently enough that it was often pronounced by adults in my surround that I should consider becoming a lawyer, probably with a certain amount of exasperation at times.

I then in college was planning to write about the French resistance and the collaboration of the work together, I should say, importantly of communists and Catholics within the French resistance during World War II.

I was very interested in how the otherwise unbridgeable gaps between those two constituencies could be bridged in order to come together to fight fascism. And I started taking, as an elective, a graduate seminar in Black American historiography, the study of how the history of Black America has changed over time. And within a week, everything had changed for me.

I wrote an honors thesis about black history, about reconstruction specifically. And when it came time to go to law school, a couple of years later went with the firm intention of coming out of it as a civil rights litigator. So I worked in racial justice for a number of years and was very satisfied by that part of my career.

Ramanan (03:54): You've said elsewhere that earlier in your career you deliberately avoided engaging with the climate movement because you felt it was "for people who didn't have more pressing and immediate concerns." But, obviously, you now run the Climate Museum, so climate is pretty central to what you do. So clearly something changed here. Can you walk us through that journey and how your thought process evolved?

Miranda Massie (04:19): It happened slowly, not in a moment. I had dismissed environmentalism generally as being a concern for privileged people, as you say. And that's now almost inconceivable to me. It's very hard for me to reconstruct because it's so clear to me now that the environment, the ecological crisis that we face, and the climate crisis specifically are such a clear expression of social inequity and the social inequities in the historical process that brought us to where we are today.

Specifically colonialism, transatlantic slavery are at the very heart of the foundation of the fossil fuel industry. We would not have a climate crisis without colonialism and transatlantic slavery and the legacies that we have not yet addressed from those violently larcenous historical processes.

And when I came to see that the first recognition was probably that the right to an equal and integrated education, the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment, all of the important matters that I was litigating and building legal campaigns around either are much more difficult to enforce if you don't have an equal right to thrive as an organism in your environment or else they just fall away completely and lose pertinence.

And as this recognition dawned on me, I realized that I wanted to switch the focus of my practice from more traditional civil rights litigation areas, education, and employment, specifically over to environmental ones.

Ramanan (05:58): Like a thousand questions I can ask in response to what you just said. But I'll move us along because we do have this podcast thing. I want to talk a little bit about climate science, and this is a challenge I have in my day job, which is this is an evolving and complex field, and climate deniers have their long set of “gotchas” that they produce every five minutes in response to virtually anything. What would you say is the minimum that people should know about climate change? The elevator pitch, if you will.

Miranda Massie (06:29): The elevator pitch is so much simpler than people think. People get very intimidated by this subject. So I'm so grateful that you ask this question, Ramanan.

The pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels causes greenhouse gases that trap heat like a blanket in the earth's atmosphere. That was true before we started burning mass quantities. So fossil fuels, greenhouse gases are also emitted by other processes, but they're overwhelmingly emitted by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. And we are trapping too much energy, too much heat, and that's disrupting all of the weather systems that have developed over millennia and with which we as a species have evolved. And that's really all you need to know. Burning fossil fuels causes a heat-trapping blanket, and that's it.

Ramanan (07:20): That's the best elevator pitch I've heard. Okay, Climate Museum, what inspired you to start it and what is the mission?

Miranda Massie (07:26): You know, Ramanan, when it first came into my mind, I was sitting in my electricity-free apartment following Hurricane Sandy, and after a couple of days, the romance of solo camping indoors wore off and I went to stay with friends. I was perfectly unharmed and safe at all times, I should underscore.

But the climate crisis had been knocking on the back door of my brain for a long time, really since ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Al Gore's movie, had come out. I rented that movie back when Netflix used to send you DVDs and proceeded to not watch it for many, many, many months on end, to the absolute astonishment of the guy I was living with at the time. Who was like, "Can we at least rent another movie? Could we get something else in the queue?" And I was like, "No, no, no, I'm going to watch it this time."

I was essentially paying to avoid the question because I intuited that it would be the question for me. And that my life was going to have to change once I started grappling with it. I had moved back to New York from doing litigation in Detroit mostly, and also both Northern and Southern California.

I moved back to New York to take a job in environmental civil rights or environmental justice, and the climate crisis was trying to make an appointment with me and I kept turning it away. And a tectonic plate shift happened in my psychology during Sandy, even though I was never in harm's way at all.

There was something about the climate crisis becoming real in my physical environment that made it impossible for me to keep pushing it back. Shortly after that, the idea for a museum that would be dedicated to climate change as a tool for giving the general public inroads into engagement and into a sense of civic empowerment and civic agency came into my mind, so absolutely fully formed that I was 100% certain I'd read about it somewhere and was hazily half remembering, half plagiarizing the thought.

And so I immediately felt compelled sight unseen to dedicate myself to helping whoever was working on this self-evidently necessary excellent idea and was amazed to learn that we would be the first climate museum in the US. And the second, at that point in the world.

There was a climate museum and still is the Climate Museum in the outskirts of Hong Kong and a lot more museums. There are now a lot more initiatives like this springing up and many more museums that aren't dedicated to climate, doing work that focuses on climate. So it's now happily much more almost.

It's almost becoming a movement that might be a little overstated, but I don't think that's wrong to say. It's definitely a move within museums now, but at the time, it was the wilderness. So much so that we got the URL for free. We should have to be climatemuseumNYC15'; very convenient that we have the URL that we do for us, but-

Ramanan (10:46): Or given the times, I urge you to procure that URL immediately. Let me dig in a little bit into...We're sort of going to blur into the meaning of a museum. Art can move people emotionally. That's a very powerful thing. How do you think about that as it relates to climate? Does the museum help people navigate this journey from emotion to action?

Miranda Massie (11:14): It's remarkable to see how effective it is. And the first thing I'll say about the power of art in this context is that art is built into how we experience ourselves as a community.

So we human beings are very, very socially networked and we are very relational, we're very normative. And art's hugely a part of that. And you can take as evidence for the fact that there are drawings on the walls of some of our first homes. There's cave drawings, speech, and song evolved together.

So our very method of communicating with each other, our first method, scholars debate. Some scholars think one came first and others think they evolve together, but nobody disputes that they were linked from the beginning.

We see also that the arts, because they open us up to the sense of being connected to others without this being conscious by the way or present in our frontal lobe when we're looking at a piece of art, it just inherently makes you feel more connected to other human beings, to a sense of community, to the human capacity for doing excellent things, for creativity and invention and brilliance and beauty.

And all of this is built into our biology. So we know from some of the early genome sequencing work that's being done that there is a genetic mutation that accounts for aesthetic appreciation in homo sapiens that Neanderthals didn't have. So when a Neanderthal made something beautiful, it was by accident.

All the human beings that any of us know is constantly seeking beauty. And we disagree fiercely about what beauty is, what it looks like, sounds like, feels like, etcetera, but we all want it around us. We want to project it. It's built into who we are at a very fundamental level.

So using art means both that we feel more connected, we feel more creative, we feel more in our own element such that you can present a piece of art and we did this last year, that's profoundly dystopian and it's apparent content, but if it's beautiful and aesthetically strong and interesting intellectually, it doesn't shut people down emotionally. It opens them up to learn about their own climate agency and their own ability to take action on the climate crisis.

It's a profoundly remarkable mechanism for opening people up. In a subject where people often feel intimidated because they feel like they don't understand enough about the science or they're worried that a denialist will shoot them down when in fact denialists have been in the single digits percentage-wise now for more than a decade, in the US adult population.

(14:20) There's a huge super majority of people that understand what's happening is human-caused and that we need to take very aggressive action on it. We just misunderstand ourselves to be a minority.

So when you pair letting people know that they're part of a large, not yet active super majority with an aesthetic setting that calls out that sense of community that's built into all of us and that sense of a kind of love of what looks and feels and is right that art evokes, it's magical what happens for people in that space.

Ramanan (14:52): Which brings up something that I'm... This is something I'm going to ask a couple of times because then, it's shame on me for not, where is the Climate Museum?

Miranda Massie (15:00): Oh, well, we're looking to have a long-standing home. We want to have a year-round exhibition space. At this moment, we have a show called “The End of Fossil Fuel” on Wooster Street in Soho, New York City. And our show last year, the one I just mentioned, it was also on Wooster Street, which was kind of a coincidence. Mostly we want to be subway accessible because in New York City, that's how you're socially accessible is by being reachable through a lot of different subway lines.

Ramanan (15:30): So as it relates to that, because it's essentially a traveling museum, I want to ask a hand grenade of a question, which is, is there the possibility that the Climate Museum could exist within another New York City museum of which there are several that appear to be very large and very well funded?

Miranda Massie (15:52): There definitely could be that possibility. It's not a question of religious faith, let's say. It does however, raise challenging governance issues because our mission is explicitly activist. We want to use the power of arts and cultural programming to help people become civic protagonists and activists on the climate crisis to reach beyond the established vanguard of climate activists into the general public. And our work does that successfully, in my view. That's a very far cry from a traditional museum's mission.

And there are also questions about funding and board governance. For example, we've had a huge challenge raising money to fund this initiative. You won't be surprised to hear, but we cannot accept donations from organizations that are inconsistent with our mission. So that obviously rules out big oil, but also rules out most large commercial banks, which are funding the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and coming under fire by activists for doing so. So it's very few.

I don't know if there's any other museum in New York City that would turn down a donation from a large financial organization. We've been approached and have said a very polite and cordial no, and we'd love to have a conversation and explain why, but that's not money that we can take.

Ramanan  (17:20): I do think times are changing, so I would not lose hope on that front. Which brings me to plutocrats and their power. And since I'm a plutocrat, I can ask this question. Can you share an example of how business leaders, and I'm not a business leader, but I'm clearly the world of business, how we can leverage our influence to promote more climate-friendly practices or policies? Does something leap to mind?

Miranda Massie (17:46): Yes, several things leap to mind. Delighted. Delighted to think about that with you. So I think there are plenty of greening practices that businesses can engage in; energy efficiency, purchasing renewable energy in lieu of fossil fuel energy, and a range of things of that nature. What I think is most important is not that.

Ramanan  (18:12): Right.

Miranda Massie (18:13): And I think that's true for individuals as well, what's most important is the civic power that you and other business leaders have. You can refuse to work with lobbyists, for example, who also work for the fossil fuel industry. You can pressure the banks with which you do business to divest from fossil fuels. You can lend your voice and your convening power to efforts to elect climate justice candidates.

So thinking of yourself as everybody has civic agency on the climate crisis, and almost none of us are exhausting that capacity because we all have circles of trust and influence that can be mobilized. Business leaders have an even bigger circle of trust and influence that can be mobilized to advance the arguments for climate justice.

Ramanan  (19:10): And in my defense, despite being a plutocrat and an evil business person, I have changed my focus to be entirely focused on climate for the last five years, so hoorah to me.

Miranda Massie (19:18): Yes, I concur.

Ramanan  (19:20): Now, where do you see the Museum in five or 10 years?

Miranda Massie (19:24): Ideally, we would have a year-round exhibition space about something like 10,000 square feet, could go down to eight, could go up to 12 where we could have two chief exhibitions at any one time so that we can continue to iterate approaches for empowering members of the public to see themselves as part of an active climate focused super majority, having to hop around from spot to spot. Some people think is intellectually intriguing or mission-consistent, but it's actually just an enormous inefficient pain in the neck.

So our goal is to have a location with a multi-year lease where we can continue to look into how best to be helpful to people because most people really want to take action on the climate crisis. That's what we learned from those who wander in the middle of SoHo shopping and the robots in their phone push us up into their feed and they walk in the door not having any idea what to expect.

What we learn from them is that the absolutely random sampling of the US adult public, most of those people want to do something to affect the civic culture that we all inhabit on the climate crisis.

Ramanan (20:38): Thank you for that. Okay. I'm going to wrap us up with some fun and not necessarily just fun questions. Favorite books or a book that you would recommend to people wanting to learn more about climate crisis in general and also the intersection between the climate crisis and social justice. And I constantly get questions like this, what is your favorite book on X? And my brain immediately goes blank.

Miranda Massie (21:07): It's like when somebody asks me to tell a joke, I'm like, "Wait, is there a joke that I've ever been told or told myself?"

Ramanan (21:14): It's the mirror of don't think about an elephant. And yeah, I'm hoping you-

Miranda Massie (21:21): But I do think I would say on climate and inequality, I think, Amitav Ghosh's The Nutmeg's Curse is a wonderful place to start. I don't agree with everything in the book. There are arguments that are almost arguments out of animism about the agency of non-human objects, natural objects, but they're very interesting and it unpacks the relationship that is absolutely fundamental between the colonialism that brought us the current world economic system and the climate crisis in a way that I don't think there's a better starting point.

Ramanan (22:02): Got it. Thank you for that. And I hope everyone's paying attention. Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg's Curse. You have mentioned that you love the theater. What are you most excited to see or have seen recently or have you just not been going?

Miranda Massie (22:17): I've seen so many wonderful things in the last six months or so. Something that was absolutely fantastic was ‘Primary Trust.’ That was a wonderful play with the guy whose name is escaping me right now, who plays the teacher in ‘The Good Place’. He is at least as good on stage as he is on-screen. He's just fantastic. And it was an absolutely lovely show. I recently saw something with a big star that was super disappointing that I'm not going to talk about, but that does happen sometimes too. Theater goer beware.

And I'm very excited to see the revival of ‘Doubt’ with Liev Schreiber, excuse me and Tyne Daly, which is coming to Broadway in a few weeks. And I have tickets to that I think a little later in the spring.

Ramanan (23:10): I lived in New York for 23 years and I barely went to the theater, so I'm very jealous of all of these things. Okay. We have one final question, then we're done here. And that is how can our listeners continue to follow the Climate Museum and your progress online?

Miranda Massie (23:28): Thank you so much.

Ramanan (23:28): I think if you also want to share with our listeners the exact address on Wooster of the current exhibit, that would be good.

Miranda Massie (23:36): Ramanan, thank you so much. So our URL, as I mentioned before, it's almost alarmingly convenient, is, and we are at 105 Wooster Street.

On our website, you can sign up for our newsletter, which is not overly frequent and it's also easy to unsubscribe, but we keep people abreast of what's going on through the newsletter and on social media on every platform we’re @climatemuseum. So we're fairly easy to track down.

Ramanan (24:06): Fantastic. Miranda, this has been the most fun I've had all week, and I want to thank you very much for your time. This is not the last time you're going to speak with us, hopefully. And I wish you the very best of luck. And when I'm in New York next, I'm making my way to 105 Wooster. Are there cross streets that immediately come to your-

Miranda Massie (24:26): Oh, yeah. So 105 Wooster is... Thank you, between Prince and Spring. So it's very much in Central SoHo.

Ramanan (24:31): Heart of SoHo?

Miranda Massie (24:33): Yeah.

Ramanan (24:33): All right. Thank you, Miranda.

Miranda Massie (24:35): Thank you.

Ramanan (24:35): Thank you for listening. Please email us at with any suggestions or ideas, and visit for the full transcript of this podcast and other information.


In Our Hands
In Our Hands
In Our Hands is a podcast series featuring interviews with climate and sustainability experts on the front lines of climate action, emphasizing behavior change. Guests include researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, authors, and more.