Climate Change and the Smithsonian

We applaud the scientists and other Smithsonian personnel for coming forward to address the decisive issue of climate at this critical time. However, we do need to point out some lapses and contradictions in the Smithsonian's approach to climate change.
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The premier "science museum" in the U.S., the Smithsonian, issued an official statement on climate change on Oct. 2, 2014. It states, "Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities." It goes on to say that "[t]he 500 Smithsonian scientists working around the world see the impact of a warming planet each day in the course of their diverse studies," and that "[t]he urgency of climate change requires that we boost and expand our efforts to increase public knowledge and that we inspire others through education and by example." The statement concludes by assuring that "[t]he Smithsonian is committed to helping our society make the wise choices needed to ensure that future generations inherit a diverse world that sustains our natural environments and our cultures for centuries to come."

The Smithsonian also hosted a one-day symposium entitled "Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health and Security" on Oct. 9, 2014. It featured leading scientists and professionals working on climate change, including James J. Hack, Director of the National Center for Computational Science at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Rachel Kyte, Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change at the World Bank; Drew Jones, Co-Director of the Climate Interactive think tank at the MIT Sloan School of Management; George Luber, Associate Director for Climate Change in the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health; Admiral Thad Allen, Executive Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton and a former commander of the U.S. Coast Guard; and Thomas L. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

We applaud the scientists and other Smithsonian personnel for coming forward to address the decisive issue of climate at this critical time. However, we do need to point out some lapses and contradictions in the Smithsonian's approach to climate change. Unlike the recent statement and symposium, a number of exhibits at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, visited by millions of schoolchildren and adults every year, downplay the grave risks posed by human-induced climate change and the reliance on fossil fuels. The worst of these is the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which leaves the visitor with the impression that contemporary humans will adapt to climate change as they have throughout our history. As physicist Joesph Romm of Climate Progress points out, this exhibit fails to distinguish between the evolution of small populations over hundreds of thousands of years during relatively slow, natural climate changes and the completely different challenge we face today, where 7 billion or more people are dealing with rapid, human-caused climate change over a much shorter time span. As Dr. Romm and others argue, the misleading Hall of Human Origins exhibit can induce complacency and inaction on climate. This exhibit is funded by a $15-million grant from David H. Koch, the oil billionaire and leader of climate-change denial.

There is now a growing scientific consensus on human-induced climate change, worsening environmental and socioeconomic effects and the strategies for mitigating climate change, namely the adoption of renewable, clean and efficient sources of energy. As Thomas Friedman pointed out in his concluding speech at the Smithsonian symposium, our world is driving dangerously toward the "edge of the cliff" of climate change, and we need to put the brakes on now. A video simulation presented by Drew Jones from MIT made abundantly clear that the know-how and resources to produce renewable, clean and efficient sources of energy are available now, and that climate stabilization can well be achieved by target dates set by scientists. What is lacking is political will and, more fundamentally, wisdom and compassion on the part of the governing elite. The situation calls upon citizens to be better-informed and exercise our democratic rights and freedom of expression to create a global partnership on climate protection.

The 2014 Warsaw meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) fell far short of expectations on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The United States has never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set internationally binding emission-reduction targets. As environmental activists point out, governments of developed countries that are "deep in the pockets of corporate polluters ... have prevented even minimal progress at the negotiations." The Warsaw meeting was sponsored by a number of coal, oil and transportation corporations. We cannot allow the preparatory meeting in Lima in December 2014 and the United Nations International Climate Conference in Paris in 2015 to be dominated by "greenwashing" coal and oil corporations yet again. If leading public educational institutions like the Smithsonian truly intend to contribute to progress beyond mere shows of support, they must work with broader networks of environmentalists, youth, women, interfaith groups, indigenous peoples and others to influence corporations, governments and the United Nations to take urgent action to mitigate climate change.

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