Even before Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, Miranda Massie ’96 had a mounting sense of the importance of addressing climate change. She was already working on issues of environmental law and policy as then-interim executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). But it was the devastation that Sandy brought to her home city that convinced her that she needed to be more actively involved in direct education and advocacy, Massie says. In 2014, Massie left NYLPI to found the Climate Museum in New York City. Among other goals, she says, the museum’s central aim is to inspire action on the climate crisis.
“The action that we seek to inspire is outward-facing civic action—which includes, for example, talking to your friends and neighbors and family members,” says Massie, who is the museum’s director. Citing a recent report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, Massie says: “We are in a crisis of disengagement from this critical subject—with 60 percent of American adults worried about climate change but remaining largely silent about it—at a moment when a broad culture for action on the climate crisis has never been more urgent.”
While the museum does not yet have a permanent location, it has held art and educational exhibitions at Parsons School of Design at the New School, including an exhibition displaying a large-scale film and other art about melting polar ice. The museum has held installations at public parks and in temporary locations such as the Admiral’s House on Governors Island, where Massie has helped bring together climate scientists and advocates to answer community questions, among other programming. The museum has also partnered with New York City’s Department of Education to create climate-centered arts programming for high school students.
“We do exhibitions that provide people with actionable pathways into climate engagement,” says Massie. “The climate crisis is definitionally, because of its massive scope and scale, one of the hardest social problems to imagine taking relevant action on,” she says. “We want to provide a way that people can understand both the size of the problem and ways they can be involved in a culture of activism and solution-seeking.”
Massie says she has always had a deep interest in activism. She left a PhD program in history at Yale University after completing a master’s degree in order to pursue a legal education, where she felt she could contribute to the greatest amount of social change, she says. “NYU Law had an unusual degree of focus on public interest law, which I felt made it a great fit for me to mobilize the educational advantages I’d been given to pursue the social justice issues I wanted to advance,” she says. Massie also noted that NYU Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program—which aids graduates who take jobs in the public interest—was a deciding factor.
At the Law School, Massie says she was particularly inspired by her participation in clinical courses, including a criminal defense clinic and an advanced clinical class in evidence and litigation with John S. R. Shad Professor of Lawyering and Ethics Peggy Cooper Davis. “Professor Cooper Davis’s course was extremely instructive: she mapped evidence principles onto storytelling, and that provided an important backdrop for all other elements of my legal education,” says Massie.
Massie first joined a small civil rights impact litigation firm in Detroit, where she worked on a number of civil rights cases, including providing criminal defense for demonstrators protesting a Ku Klux Klan recruitment rally in 1998. In 2003, Massie was lead counsel for student intervenors supporting the University of Michigan’s arguments in Grutter v. Bollinger, an affirmative action case that eventually went to the US Supreme Court. The Court’s decision affirmed that consideration of race in admissions decisions does not violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
“I absolutely loved the way that trial lawyering combines the logical system of legal rules and principles—both the substance of law and then the trial procedures—with the psychology of the courtroom and the theatrics of the courtroom,” says Massie. “I love how all of those things have to come together in your strategy to advance your client's position.” For her work in civil rights litigation, Massie was awarded a Fletcher Foundation Fellowship and a W. E. B. Du Bois Institute Fellowship at Harvard University.
After eight years in Detroit, Massie took a position as a senior attorney with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest in the environmental justice department. “It was a dream job,” says Massie, who worked primarily on toxic exposure cases, including a campaign to get toxic polycholorinated biphenyls, often found in light fixtures, out of New York City school buildings. “We worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and were able to reach a very favorable settlement with the city, pursuant to which all of these contaminated lighting ballasts were removed from hundreds of school buildings across the city and replaced,” she says.
Massie eventually served as NYPLI’s legal director and general counsel and also served a term as the organization’s interim executive director in 2012. During her tenure at NYPLI, Massie was a Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at Harvard Law School and a mentor-in-residence at Yale Law School.
Superstorm Sandy compelled her to move into more direct climate-focused action. “There was a physical experience and physical evidence—a manifestation of the climate crisis firsthand. And the emotional manifestation of it and what it did to New York City,” says Massie.
Massie also notes that she had come to see environmental justice as underlying many of the racial and social justice issues she has pursued throughout her career.
“It's in differential access to environmental benefits and differential exposure to environmental harms and risks that the inequality at the heart of American society, that American white supremacy most strongly and indelibly expresses itself,” says Massie. “If your basic health as a person, as a creature is constantly under pressure from racist distribution of environmental harms, it's much more difficult to prosecute and enforce your right to equal and integrated schools for example [or] your right to be [in] a workplace free of discrimination of different kinds. So I came to see the relationship of the environment and American racial hierarchy as foundational.”
While still working as interim executive director of NYPLI, Massie had the idea of creating a physical space where people could be educated and offered pathways for engagement. “It’s clear that museums and other cultural institutions, because they're so trusted and so popular, have a really important role to play,” says Massie. She spent the next two years building an advisory council that included scientists, climate advocates, architects, social scientists, and museum curators. In 2014, Massie left NYPLI to officially launch the Climate Museum.
“One of the reasons that people turn away from climate engagement and try very hard not to think about it is that as individuals we are all out-scaled by this problem by such a massive factor,” says Massie. “But when we're in league with other people, it's more than just addition, it's multiplication… Our sense of possibility and our sense of what we can do expands hugely and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Posted February 23, 2021