Must-see video: Polluter-funded Smithsonian exhibit whitewashes danger of human-caused climate change

Koch money and dubious displays put credibility of entire museum and science staff on the line

UPDATE (2014): Two things are clear if you visit America’s leading “science museum” — the National Museum of Natural History.  First, the Smithsonian has a very impressive new exhibit called the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. Second, that exhibit downplays or ignores the risks posed by human-caused climate change in a number of its displays.

Yes, the Smithsonian took $15 million from a billionaire polluter — who is an even bigger funder of disinformation on climate science than Exxon Mobil — to fund a misleading exhibit on evolution and climate change.  See also the new Think Progress post “A ‘Grateful’ Smithsonian Denies Greenwashing ‘Philanthropist’ David H. Koch’s Dirty Money.”

The exhibit’s main theme is that extreme climate change in the past made humans very adaptable, an interesting theory based on limited data and lots of speculation.  But its huge flaw is that it it leaves visitors with the distinct impression that human-caused global warming is no big deal — even though our understanding of the grave threat posed by that warming is based on far, far more research and data.

This embarrassing episode in the Smithsonian’s history raises serious questions about how big polluters may be pursuing yet another strategy to influence how climate science is communicated to the public (see “Can Big Oil buy a watered-down climate exhibit at the London Science Museum?“)

Let’s start with a video that Lee Fang of Think Progress shot of some key exhibit displays, narrated by me:

[Okay, I’m no David Attenborough, but then, this isn’t my exhibit or the BBC’s Life on Earth.]

Let me expand and clarify the points I made in that video.

The exhibit’s major intellectual failing is that it does not distinguish between 1) the evolution of small populations of tens (to perhaps hundreds) of thousands of humans and pre-humans over hundreds of thousands of years to relatively slow, natural climate changes and 2) the completely different challenge we have today:  The ability of modern civilization — nearly 7 billion people, going up to 10 billion — to deal with rapid, human-caused climate change over a period of several decades (and ultimately much longer).

The exhibit fails to make clear that while small populations of homo “sapiens” evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of fluctuating climate, the rapid population growth of human civilization occurred during a time of relatively stable climate.

Let’s be clear here.  Not only has the atmospheric concentration of CO2 — the principal human-generated greenhouse gas — risen sharply in recent decades, it has risen at a rate that is unprecedented in the past million years (see “Humans boosting CO2 14,000 times faster than nature, overwhelming slow negative feedbacks“).  As the author of 2008 study on this subject noted, “the average change in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 600,000 years has been just 22 parts per million by volume.” Humans have run up CO2 levels 100 ppm over the last two centuries. The author added, “Right now we have put the system entirely out of equilibrium.

Even another 100 ppm change could be devastating to the billions of people who have settled in places based on current sea levels and fresh water from inland glaciers and relatively consistent levels of soil moisture and precipitation (see Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher — “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm”) — a study based on the exact same kind of paleoclimate reconstruction the entire Smithsonian exhibit is based on).

Worse, we’re poised to run CO2 levels up another 500 ppm this century if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path! (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F and U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — 1000 ppm).

But you’d never know any of that from the Smithsonian exhibit.  The key figure they use as the basis of their intellectual case, which you can see in the video in two locations, is this reconstruction (from “Survival of the Adaptable,” click to enlarge) :

Caption:  “Earth’s Changing Climate and Human Evolution: Earth’s climate has fluctuated between warm and cool over the past ten million years. The ratio of two oxygen isotopes, as measured in cores drilled from the ocean bottom, ranges from about 2.5 to 5.0 parts per million. This measure reflects both worldwide ocean temperature and the amount of glacial ice. Particularly dramatic fluctuations marked the six-million-year period of human evolution.”

Note that in this view, modern humans, who developed in the last couple hundred thousand years, were experiencing fluctuations of 10°C in the swings in and out of the Ice Ages.  But on the scale of that figure, the last 10,500 years (“plant and animal domestication,” i.e modern civilization) would be virtually a flat line.

UPDATE (10/14): A 2013 study by Marcott et al. in Science found that recent warming is “amazing and atypical” — and poised to destroy the stable climate that enabled civilization. It was the source of most of the data in this popular, jaw-dropping graph:

Temperature change

Temperature change over past 11,300 years (in blue, via Science, 2013) plus projected warming this century on humanity’s current emissions path (in red, via recent literature).

Pretty bloody stable (until recently) on the scale of the Smithsonian chart.

UPDATE (10/14): Real Climate has posted a summary and FAQ by Shaun Marcott and colleagues, which notes, “Our view is that the results of the paper will stand the test of time, particularly regarding the small global temperature variations in the Holocene. If anything, early Holocene warmth might be overestimated in this study.” The main, stunning conclusion we can draw from the paper is that the rate of warming since 1900 is 50 times greater than the rate of cooling in the previous 5000 years, which undermines the whole notion of adaptation.

It is the stable climate of that past 10,000 years that has coincided with rapid population growth.  Here is a chart from the Smithsonian’s exhibit website:

World population growth. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studio.

Note:  It would have been nice for the Smithsonian to tell readers that the chart did not have a linear scale for time.

Here is a better graph from Wikipedia in which time has a linear scale but population is plotted logarithmically:

world population

The point is, natural “extreme climate shifts” may have been terrific for making humans adaptable, but a relatively stable climate over the last 10,000 years or so is what enabled modern civilization and rapid population growth.

The exhibit does have a couple of displays aimed at future climate change, which I’ll discuss in a later post, but none of them lays out the threat posed by the rapid climate change we now face.  The single strongest statement is one panel that says:

The level of CO2 today is the highest since our species evolved.  The projected increase over the next century is more than twice that of any time in the past 6 million years and suggests a long-term sea level rise of 6.4 m (21 ft).

The Smithsonian never gives a time frame for sea level rise, and, of course, the key fact in that sentence is not accurate.  The projected increase of CO2 emissions just in the first half of this century suggests a long-term sea level rise of 75 to 120 feet, as a major 2009 Science article explains. And 2 years ago James Hansen et al. argued that projected increase of CO2 emissions risks an ice-free planet:

We infer from the Cenozoic data that CO2 was the dominant Cenozoic forcing, that CO2 was only ~450 ppm when Antarctica glaciated, and that glaciation is reversible.

That is, if we stabilize at 450 ppm (or higher) we risk returning the planet to conditions when it was largely ice free, when sea levels were higher by 70 meters — more than 200 feet!

If the overall exhibit were better on climate change, this might not be a big deal.  But given how lame the whole exhibit is, this error is another black eye.

One of the key displays in the section about the present and future is in the video, a nonsensical interactive video which lets visitors create a “future human” that evolves over millions of years to a variety of changing conditions including a new ice age or living in crowded underground cities because of global warming or even — I kid you not — a future Earth that “smells.”

How much does the exhibit downplay the impact of human-caused emissions?  In the part of the exhibit about the present and the future, there is a display that says “Benefits and Costs of our success.”  You can see the text online here (near the bottom of the page):


By settling down and producing our own food, we created:

—piles of waste that form natural breeding grounds for contagious diseases;

—large concentrations of people, enabling diseases to spread and become epidemics;

—domesticated landscapes that displace wild habitats;

—loss of wild species that depend on natural habitats.

Where is the cost: “huge emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that threaten rapid climate change and serious consequences for billions of people”?   This is an exhibit about climate change, after all.

Or how about “Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred.”

When climate change is very abrupt, it does have consequences.  The online exhibit has a timeline that notes:


The extreme climate change 74,000 years ago — which is still a subject of much scientific debate — appears to have been driven by a massive volcano that led to a pretty rapid change in temperatures.

So yes, the Smithsonian is pointing out that an unusual episode of extreme climate change nearly wiped out the human race, but essentially ignores the threat posed by comparably extreme climate change today.

If this were just another Smithsonian exhibit, I’d call it a “grave disappointment” and “seriously flawed.”  But since it was primarily funded by the billionaire polluter David Koch, who is founder of a vast network of conservative organizations that deny the threat of global warming — with overall funding of disinformers that now exceeds Exxon Mobil the exhibit puts the credibility of the entire Museum of Natural History and science staff on the line.

Either the exhibit should be reworked or they should give Koch’s money back so as not to taint this exhibit.  Or both.

Think Progress just posted:

According to the Smithsonian Institution, it doesn’t matter how toxic your politics are or how dirty your money is, as long as you give the cash to them.  Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, defended pollution scion David H. Koch as a “philanthropist who is deeply interested in science.”

Potts told ThinkProgress why the Smithsonian accepted $15 million from this climate-denial kingpin [video here]:

“David Koch is a philanthropist, who is deeply interested in science. He’s funded the dinosaur halls, for example, in the American Museum of Natural History. He gave a lot of money to the Lincoln Center and its refurbishing. He has a lot of interest in human evolution that goes back to about thirty or forty years. And so, uh, as is true with all Smithsonian policy, our donors have no control over the content of our science or scholarship of our exhibits. And the same is true in this case. We feel very grateful for David Koch’s contributions to helping, I hope, the American public and us being able to bring science to them.”

For related background, which suggests Koch knew exactly what kind of science he was buying from the Smithsonian, see the Yglesias post, “David Koch, Climate Change, and Human Evolution.”

NOTE: This post has been updated.

32 Responses to Must-see video: Polluter-funded Smithsonian exhibit whitewashes danger of human-caused climate change

  1. paulm says:

    gee, I was hoping this was the apr 1st post.

    [JR: Sorry. Working on one.]

  2. Rick Covert says:

    The “Creation Science” exhibit was merely funny. This one is scary.

    [JR: And this isn’t even all the material I have on this exhibit or other exhibits.]

  3. Ivy Bear says:

    Check out the Koch funding of George Mason University also. Think of the impact that has on the quality and nature of academics there.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    Who wrote the exhibit (Potts?), and what are their data sources? How did they decide how to spin the climate change issues?

    Do we have to submit a FOIA request to find out?!?

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, you grant the exhibit the point that “natural ‘extreme climate shifts’ may have been terrific for making humans adaptable(,)” but I’m not sure that makes sense in terms of evolutionary biology. Certainly our ancestors who survived were more adaptable than those who didn’t, but does that make us more adaptable to similar future events, especially an event along the lines of the 75 kya one? I doubt it. I would be very interested to see a critique of the exhibit by a suitable expert on evolution.

    Also, I think we should be able to say that if CO2 stabilizes at 450 ppm that a much warmer ice-free climate is a dead-bang guarantee, not just likely.

    BTW, I was amused to see you use Katherine’s graph. Gee, why does it cut off at 6 kya? :)

  6. Leif says:

    Don’t the Tin Hats realize that “climate change” will increase abortion. Who in their right mind will want to bring new life into a world of collapsing life support systems?

  7. mike roddy says:

    First, polluting, right wing extremist, and greed crazed companies like Koch get in the government (Inhofe, Borasso), then the schools (Texas B of E), then universities (George Mason, Stanford), and now our museums.

    What’s next? Churches and environmental organizations? Wait, I forgot, they’re already there, too.

    Never mind that Lincoln or Jefferson would have been horrified. So would Dwight Eisenhower. This is serious, folks.

  8. A Siegel says:

    A different perspective: I never advocate giving money back to people like Koch. Donate it to something useful rather than give it back to him to deploy to something reprehensible.

    Thank you for writing this. My reaction to the online material was a “where is a discussion of modern Global Warming” and that this exhibit looks to be an implicit path of supporting Global Warming denial / skepticism (Oh, it’s all natural; we’ll just adapt; …). I wanted to wait until I visited to see whether that impression was correct. Sadly, it looks to be …

  9. Ian Forrester says:

    Mmm Koch funded George Mason University, I wonder how much money Edward Wegman got from Koch for his rubbish report on Mann’s work.

  10. PSU Grad says:

    I agree this is serious, but I’m going to get on my horse (yet again) and ask the following question: in all honesty, what do you think will make the American people (the rest of the world seems to notice) take this threat seriously? My guess is….take New England and magnify it exponentially. A sweltering summer of 20-30 100+F days (my apology to those in the west who already get this as a matter of course, but it doesn’t happen in the east too often). 25 tropical storms, of which 15 strike the US and three of those are major hurricanes.

    And that has to happen for 2-3 consecutive years. And even then, I’m not sure people will truly sit up and take notice.

    It’s just so much easier and more comforting to think we have nothing to do with is. It’s so much easier and more comforting to believe those who mock climate scientists (who asked those smarty-pants to butt in here, anyway…buncha eggheads).

    I haven’t seen anything here or elsewhere to convince me that people will wake up until they HAVE TO wake up. Sorry to be so pessimistic, but that’s my very unfortunate conclusion. I’d truly enjoy thinking otherwise.

  11. catman306 says:

    If David Koch is really a philanthropist I’d expect him to have his name removed from this exhibit or let some climate scientists work on the subject matter, graphics and conclusions.

  12. Ryan T says:

    The point lost on many is that this issue is about rapid holocene change, and the potential impacts on TODAY’S biosphere, including billions of non-nomadic humans and the civilization they take for granted. If we stop ourselves from pushing the snowball down the hill, we at least have the chance at thousands of years more with which to grow up, and become more resilient as a civilization, not just a species.

  13. Bill Waterhouse says:

    Ecological science teaches us that stable environments lead to greater population diversity and richer biological systems (think rain forests, coral reef ecosystems) than environments with great change (think tundra). This ecological principal also applies in general to human civilizations. Human civilizations only advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage during the last 10,000 years of relatively stable climate, allowing the development of agriculture, culture and science.

    However, as the research of Jared Diamond and many others shows, even relatively small changes in the environment during the last 10,000 years has lead to the destruction of a number of human civilizations. From my online review of the exhibit, the possiblity of failure of human civilizations from environmental change seems to be entirely missing.

    Of course, because climate change is now happening so fast, the physical evolution of humans through our genetics won’t be a factor at all; the issue is whether human civilizations can evolve enought to stop emissions of GHGs. So the display about humans centuries in the future is areally laughable, silly distraction in view of the present climate crisis.

    It is simply astounding how bad the population chart in the exhibit is. As Joe notes, the time scale is not linear so the curve appears to show that the rate of population growth has actually slowed after 1910. Even worse, it inexplicably stops in 1950 instead of showing the exponential growth up to the present.

    What the exhibit needs to add to be at least somewhat credible is two graphics: 1] an accurate linear chart over time showing global temperatures and CO2 levels, showing how the last 10,000 years have been pretty unique in their stability; and 2] an accurate chart over the last 500 years to the present showing both human population growth and CO2 emissions. These two graphics would bring home to even the most casual viewer how we are the verge of climate change of a magnitude and speed that human civilization has never experienced before. I would be surprised if early drafts of the exhibit concepts didn’t include this basic climate and population information. It would be interesting to find out why it didn’t make it to the final exhibit. It’s probably not a pretty story.

  14. Andy says:

    OK, am I wrong on this? Aren’t we headed to 5C or worse with business as usual by 2100? This temp exceeds the peak global average since human-like primates evolved, doesn’t it? These temps haven’t been seen since what? 55 million years ago?

    [JR: Pretty much. BAU is very likely at least another 4C, probably 5C, and possibly 7C.]

  15. This is Astonishing! This is like finding close relatives selling their “charms” in Las Vegas. The Smithsonian had a great reputation, I was a subscriber to their fine magazine, often read it in the Public Library. I will order one, a magazine, thatis, from Las Vegas where professional are, at least, honest as to how they earn their living.

    What was too shocking and stopped me was “right away found a fossil human cranium that was 900,000 years old.” And, they peddle this as science?
    I wonder what Dr. Leakey would say: “Are they trying for notoriety with lies? You mean, these grandstandig show-monkeys are climbing back on the Evolution tree? When did Evolution reverse into Devolution.”
    He might wonder how fast are they reverting into Apes, you think?
    But, this is unfair to the apes! Apes fulfill their purpose in life, perfectly. These were not even mentioned in Dante’s “Inferno”!
    One good thing: This answers, for me, why the number of Americans, no lets call them “people-like”, do not believe Global Warming is a Scientific fact is INCREASING!

    Their last Devolution stage ends when they pass out, after they flatten their forehead with a self-inflicted blow while they whisper last words “Maybe, just maybe, I was wrong, I’ll be dammned!” And will.

  16. James Newberry says:

    Yale University is doing climate change polling with George Mason University. I wonder if there is any appearance of bias, considering the funding at Mason by Koch. Who goes to Yale? Only people like Clinton, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Kerry, Lieberman, etc.

  17. Seo says:

    very interesting…

  18. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    More scum at the top. What actions can be taken?

  19. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Denialism and climate change deniers

    The Denialism Blog explains and defines denialism. Climate change deniers fit. Climate change deniers also have their own special bottom line: They deny or poo-pooh the conclusion that there is reason *not* to continue with business as usual.

    The Smithsonian seems to be doing this.

  20. Wit's End says:

    Well, well, well. That could possibly explain this Smithsonian travesty that I have been trying to reconcile:

    I wrote the authors of the study to ask them the date of their last measurements.

    Still no answer.

    Scummy liars.

  21. PurpleOzone says:

    I’m glad to see some attention being paid to the Koches. I’ve been wondering where all the $$ was coming from to support the Cato, Heritage, Heartland, etc. Also, I noticed the massive funds they put into George Mason, a nest of conservative (?if that’s the appropriate word) economic theories, and of course a home for some climate deniers.

    In my opinion, $$ put out in support of a business’s interests is advertising or public relations. It should be signed by the business and should not be “donated” to a “non-profit”. They get a tax break for their “good works” of destroying our planet.

    Congress needs to investigate this. Also who paid for the Wegman report.

    In the meantime, my home insurance was raised 10% again this year. “Fires in California” was the agent’s explanation to me yesterday. Also the “500 year floods” or “300 year floods” that keep happening here. My state had floods 3 times in March, after several days of intense rain each time.

  22. John Mashey says:

    re: 16 on George Mason & Yale, #9 on GMU & Wegman
    See Yale University & George Mason University, GLOBAL WARMING‟s SIX AMERICAS 2009.
    I found that useful for Crescendo… and I didn’t see any obvious skew, although I wondered a little about the term “Alarmed…”.

    I always suggest caution in over-interpreting connections. Without more data, one cannot tell where Koch funding actually goes in a substantial institution like GMU. Likewise, I’d suggest that without specific evidence, assuming a Koch $$ connection for Wegman is unproductive.

    In fact, regarding the latter, see talk by Yasmin Said, unearthed by Deep Climate.

    See especially p.23 (and for context, if you aren’t familiar with GMI and Annapolis Center, they get mentioned, with funding in “Crescendo…”. Said’s slide said:

    – Good ones
    • We were invited to participate in a workshop at the National Center for Atmospheric Research – pro anthropogenic global warming.
    • We were invited to participate in a workshop by the Marshall Institute – anti anthropogenic global warming.
    • We were invited by the Annapolis Center for Science- Based Public Policy to participate in a workshop on peer review.
    – Bad Ones
    • We were invited by the Provost, the Dean of the College of Science, and the Vice President for Research at GMU to explain our testimony.”

    Hmmm…. possibly GMU was not so pleased at that time.

  23. john atcheson says:

    This is obscene.

  24. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    The plot thickens. Here’s Pott’s book:

    and NOVA is involved too.

    The book presents a wealth of attractive new material especially developed for the Hall’s displays, from life-like reconstructions of our ancestors sculpted by the acclaimed John Gurche to photographs from National Geographic and Smithsonian archives, along with informative graphics and illustrations. In coordination with the exhibit opening, the PBS program NOVA will present a related three-part television series, and the museum will launch a website expected to draw 40 million visitors.

    Perhaps there are a few things they should be told?

  25. fj2 says:

    the smithsonian should be taking the lead in the battle against global warming.

    this is absolutely irresponsible.

  26. Larry Gilman says:

    The Smithsonian has been low in my esteem since I visited their emasculated Hiroshima exhibit in the late 1980s or early 1990s. In response to political pressure they deleted nearly all mention of what happened to the people under the bomb: instead, focused on celebratory interviews with the pilots who dropped the weapon. There was a poster outside with a long paragraph of classic weaseling explanation by, as I recall, the head of the museum. It was pitiable. The GOP was threatening to defund the whole Smithsonian if they didn’t tidy up the history to match the patriotic myth. So the Smithsonian tidied.

    Institutional pets on political leashes are not the foremost truth-tellers. Not on mass murder, nor on climate change.

  27. Mark Shapiro says:

    I recommend John Mashey’s “Crescendo” at desmogblog, noted by John M @22.

  28. Wit's End says:

    Seconded, @22, a magnum opus!!

  29. Kem Patrick says:

    And as usual no one mentions the oon going release of billions of tons of methane gas into our atmosphere from the Arctic region due to extreme warming ocean waters and the reduction of ice and permafrost. At the current rate of methane release, a far more potent greenhouse gas than Co2, we may have less than five years before we will have global warming like no one will believe possible. It isn’t a hundred years or fifty, or even twenty we should be discussing, it’s more like five to ten. If we haven’t already reached the “tipping point” of no return, we are very very close.

    As the government geologist John Atcheson so well stated in his paper published in December of 2004, “Once it starts there will be no do-overs, no turning back, it will likely play itself out all the way”. He was ignored and what he warned us of in 2004 is now occurring exactly as he predicted.

    It (has started) and if even only ten percent releases, we are in deep do-do and if it plays itself out all the way, the party will definently be over. That (could) happen in less than ten years if no actio is taken. It will happen, the only argument is how much time do we have? Is any action being taken to prevent it? No!

    [JR: Well, the methane feedback is on the front page of this blog.]

  30. Yuvin says:

    This koch guy is starting to scare me–he is everywhere. Every little program that requires some sort of private funding, i.e. PBS, get their endowment of some sort from his front end groups. What’s going on?

  31. Anna Haynes says:

    Mark #5, “Do we have to submit a FOIA request to find out?!?”

    From their FOIA page:
    “As a trust instrumentality of the United States, the Smithsonian Institution is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, 5 USC §552), which applies only to federal agencies within the Executive Branch of government.
    It is the Smithsonian’s policy to answer requests for information consistent with its written policy and the principles of FOIA and in a manner that fosters openness and accountability”

    I’ll see what I can find out.

  32. Anna Haynes says:

    This isn’t the first time the Smithsonian has done this.

    From Climate Science Watch, 2007 –
    “Smithsonian Institution executives ordered a politically motivated rewrite of science in a 2006 exhibit on climate change in the Arctic, says Robert Sullivan, who was associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Associated Press reported that Sullivan, who resigned, says that, among other things, the text of the exhibit was edited to minimize the relationship between global warming and humans. Our own review of the exhibit finds that, in fact, it discusses climate change and its impacts on the Arctic but, with evident evasiveness, avoids ANY mention of human-induced global warming as a driver. ”