Canadians who help us understand, mitigate and adapt in the new climate environment
Soren Brothers made Canadian history in 2021 when he became the first Shiff Curator of Climate Change at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ont. This role is the first of its kind and a trailblazing move for Canada’s largest museum.
An environmental scientist, Brothers has worked across North America. That includes the Nunavut tundra, Quebec boreal forests and the Great Lakes region. Beyond his role as curator, Brothers teaches at the University of Toronto in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
We caught up with him to hear about his first year as Curator of Climate Change and what learnings he has taken away from it.
I have always been looking for a position where my environmental scientific knowledge could be applied broadly to improve our understanding of, and response to, climate change, and when I saw this opportunity come up at ROM it was pretty clear to me that it was my dream job.
Q&A with Soren Brothers
You’ve got a unique role as Shiff Curator of Climate Change, the first such position at Canada’s largest museum. What are the key messages you’re hoping to convey and what has been your approach?
Through the past year of conversations and learning, I’m feeling more and more that the biggest “gap” in public awareness remains with our solutions. Most people have been introduced to the causes and potential consequences of climate change, but I find that many people (including myself, when I started this position) have not been as aware of how far along our societies, here and around the world, have already come in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change.
I’m trying to use the various communications, research and programming opportunities that the ROM supports to convey this message at every possible opportunity through every possible avenue. One of the first ways we’ve been doing this concretely is by offering a climate change tour to the public on a regular basis since April 2022.
We see you started your career as a limnologist. Tell us about the early days.
Limnology is the study of inland aquatic ecosystems and I more or less stumbled into the field when I was taking courses at McGill in 2006. I was interested in getting some lab experience (which ended up being in a paleolimnology lab run by Dr. Irene Gregory-Eaves). I had just spent a year in Japan where I volunteered for a climate change NGO and, with a BSc in conservation biology and minor in political science from UBC, I already had climate change high on my mind.
What kept me going with limnology was the increasing understanding that lakes around the world tend to be major sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and the response of lakes to climate change could influence the trajectory of our atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.
What inspired you to transition into climate change education?
Fundamentally, I have always been looking for a position where my environmental scientific knowledge could be applied broadly to improve our understanding of, and response to, climate change, and when I saw this opportunity come up at ROM it was pretty clear to me that it was my dream job.
One of the things that appealed to me with the ROM curatorship was the fact that ROM is also a research institute, so in fact I am still developing a research program here that will continue investigating the links between our waters and climate change—but working with ROM educational, programming and exhibitions teams, I can go much further in terms of the impact and reach of this work.
How have you found your first year in the role?
It’s been exciting! A lot of the work to date has been really to build the foundation of the programs here, and to listen to the community to figure out how ROM’s climate change programs can have the greatest, most positive, and most meaningful impact. Basically, I’ve been giving a lot of talks, but also doing a lot of listening.
For several years, I worked as an Assistant Professor of Limnology at Utah State University, where I was teaching students about climate change and giving public lectures on the topic, and also setting up large, interdisciplinary projects with other academics and non-academics from a wide range of fields to tackle large, complex questions. ROM, with its curators and expertise from both the world cultures and natural history angles, has been the perfect place to embrace this kind of thinking and bring it to the next level.
What is the most challenging element of the role?
One challenge I’m becoming aware of is the understanding that there isn’t a single communications style or focus that’s best suited for all members of the public. Essentially, our museum visitors come with a full, complex range of perspectives, and we need to consider those in our communications. For instance, some but not all people engage more with optimistic vs. pessimistic messaging. And when it comes to discussing individual changes that we can make to help combat climate change, there can be a fine line between empowering individuals vs. making them potentially feel guilty or targeted in some way.
Watch Dr. Brothers with Royal Ontario Museum curators as they talk about what climate change means to them in their work, at home and around the world.
This Trailblazer profile is part of a series featuring Canadians who are helping us understand, mitigate and adapt in the new climate environment. A thoughtful approach is required for communicating and educating on the complexities associated with climate change—we’d like you to meet some trailblazers who have accepted the challenge!
Education and research are key tools that can help us navigate the climate crisis. The expert teams at Ducks Unlimited Canada are working to help us understand, mitigate and adapt in the new climate environment. They’re defining nature-based solutions for climate mitigation and shaping a future that includes healthy landscapes. They’re carrying out this mission using research, ecosystem monitoring, wetland mapping, experiential learning, compassionate education, professional resources, land-based partnerships, and alliances such as DUC’s Nature Force initiative with Canada’s insurance industry.
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