A Planet In Peril Is Focus of New AMNH Exhibit

A new climate change exhibit illustrates the link between warmer oceans and more devastating hurricanes. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA  | The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) launched a permanent climate change exhibit last month, featuring an interactive wall with key information about our planet’s changing weather patterns.

Interactive sections detail evidence of rising temperatures, the greenhouse gas emissions causing the temperature to rise, and the consequences of climate change with before-and-after images of natural disasters that studies have shown will intensify under a warming climate.

As distinct from a previous temporary exhibit nearly a decade ago, climate change’s poster child — the polar bear — is not featured  in the new exhibit, in order to focus attention on how climate change impacts people and not just the animal and plant kingdoms we share the planet with.

“We wanted to shift away from the more — I don’t want to say trite, because polar bears are very important — but [shift away from] the examples that people sort of know about, but they can say, ‘Well that’s far away,’” said Rosamond Kinzler, the senior director of science education at the AMNH.

Rather, the exhibit in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth focuses on the causes of climate change and its consequences, including wildfires, drought, hurricanes, and other crises directly affecting people.

“Warming climates cause an increased occurrence of extreme versions of fires and droughts and floods,” Kinzler said. “And so we want to make sure that people understand that connection because those are all things that really affect us.”

Digital images illustrate a power plant with billowing smoke, a global view identifying the planet’s electricity hot spots, and — perhaps most harrowing — hurricane after hurricane, including Harvey, Irma, and Maria, slamming the Caribbean and the southeast US in the summer of 2017.

The planet’s climate is being warmed quickly by rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, as demonstrated in this interactive display. | Photo by Denis Finnin/ Courtesy of AMNH

The exhibit also highlights climate resiliency efforts by New York City — painting roofs white to reduce the urban heat island effect, elevating critical infrastructure to withstand future storms, reimagining the electric grid, making subway infrastructure more more storm-resistant, and combatting coastal erosion — in minute-long videos focusing on the city’s efforts since Superstorm Sandy ravaged Lower Manhattan and coastal Brooklyn and Queens in late October 2012.

Another interactive display explains how climate change could — and in some cases already has — exacerbated the spread of disease, food and water shortages, and even global conflict.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the installation was packed with children on camp tours and some with parents explaining what the graphs, numbers, and images reveal. The knobs and dials that untangle the extensive amount of data and information happened to be broken in at least two places — a testament to just how much the installation has been used so far.

One child slid one knob back and forth repeatedly at the before-and-after section, saying “storm, no storm, storm, no storm.” A parent explained to two children what scientists learn from ice cores — cylindrical chunks of ice that can be found in Greenland and Antarctica and stretch for up to two miles long. They help scientists investigate what the climate was like hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Kinzler said that anecdotal evidence convinces her that the new permanent exhibit is drawing more people than the museum’s previous efforts on climate change had.

“We’ll have to do the visitor study tracking to back it up with evidence, but I think everyone is observing that,” she said.

The exhibition opens after months of backlash in which the museum faced criticism for allowing Rebekah Mercer — who has made millions of dollars in donations to climate change denial groups, owns half of the website Breitbart, and was a part owner and board member of the data firm Cambridge Analytica that was implicated in the misappropriation of data from tens of millions of Facebook accounts in 2016 — onto its Board of Trustees.

The group Revolting Lesbians has protested the museum repeatedly, with one member, Amanda Lugg, telling Manhattan Express in April that the museum “is basically giving her a legitimacy and a cover and an aura of respectability that she doesn’t deserve.”

The Natural History Museum — a traveling museum that partners with scientists and museums — spearheaded an open letter earlier this year from more than 450 scientists asking the AMNH to remove Mercer from the board and “end all ties to anti-science propagandists and funders of climate science misinformation.” Mercer’s hefty support for climate change denial groups while being in a leadership position at the museum is directly contrary to the AMNH’s mission, said the mobile museum’s director, Beka Economopoulos.

“That’s a contradiction,” Economopoulos said. “It really flies in the face of the institution’s mission and really damages the public trust.”

A January letter from 28 museum curators also voiced concerns about Mercer and climate science misinformation to museum executives, the New York Times reported at the time. 

Scott Rohan, the museum’s spokesperson, referred Manhattan Express to a previous statement provided in April and climate change information on its website when asked about Mercer’s continuing role as a trustee.

“It’s not the role of Trustees or donors to make decisions about scientific and educational content,” Rohan said by email. “At the Museum, those decisions are made by scientists and educators based on evidence, facts, and research.”

A 3_D sculptural model of Earth explains mantle convection, by which rising and sinking regions of the planet’s mantle transport heat from deep below the surface and drive plate tectonics. | Photo by Denis Finnin/ Courtesy of AMNH

A review of the exhibit by Earther, an online environmental news source, criticized the exhibit for presenting no solutions beyond the painted white rooftops that reflect heat off city buildings.

Though the exhibit clearly acknowledges that greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of climate change, there is also no focus on how to decrease emissions or the role of the fossil fuel industry, particularly Exxon, in covering up evidence of climate change as far back as the 1970s, which InsideClimate News uncovered in a 2015 investigation.

Failure to focus attention on the fossil fuel industry’s long indifference to  the climate crisis could be seen as a striking exclusion, though Economopoulos noted she couldn’t say whether it is attributable to Mercer’s presence on the board, acknowledging she has not reviewed all of the exhibit’s information yet.

“To me, climate change is as much a social and societal concern as it is a scientific one,” she said. “You cannot exclude the social sciences from the hard sciences.”

The museum, she added, “sees dozens of school groups a day. They are highly influential. They are among the most trusted sources of information in society… They are perfectly poised to host discussions about climate change and how we got here and what happens next.”

What is expected to happen in the future — on issues including the rise in sea levels and temperature projections —  is another aspect curators left out.

“The reason that we don’t prioritize futurecasting from climate change models — and this is a question we get asked a lot — is because, in fact, what does happen in the future will depend most heavily on what humans decide to do about emissions and other factors as well,” Kinzler said.

The exhibit includes a focus on paleoclimatology, which plays a critical role in understanding patterns and trends stretching hundreds of thousands of years into the past. Scientific samples such as ice cores, sediment cores, lake cores, tree rings, and corals help show how carbon dioxide concentrations have changed over time. That all improves our understanding of how climate systems work.

For instance, said Kinzler, “How do we know that dinosaurs lived on this planet millions of years ago? The same way we know what the carbon dioxide concentration in the air was — by studying the record.”

She added, “The same kind of inferences that helped us understand what lived there then are the kinds of inferences that help us understand the chemistry. It’s a deep connection between the present and the past.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *