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

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

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:

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:

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:

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.