NYC Museum of Natural History Climate Exhibit

To judge from recent reactions to some of our climate posts in Energwise, there are a lot of people out there who could use some basic instruction in the science and implications of climate change. And so it was to be heartily welcomed, in principle, when the world''s most famous and probably its greatest museum of natural history opened an exhibit about global warming, to run almost a year from Oct. 18, 2008 to Aug. 16, 2009. Mounted in collaboration with a handful of other major museums and foundations, with financial support from the Bank of America and the Rockefeller Foundation, how could it not be great?

For some months, I''ve been puzzled by the absence of attention in the media given the American Museum of Natural History''s climate change exhibit. So I went to check it out yesterday, taking my spouse along to act the part of ''woman in the street.'' It didn''t take us long to find the answer to my question: What I hoped would be a great exhibit is a great disappointment. There is so little good to be said about it, if indeed anything at all, one is tempted to pass over it in silence''which evidently is exactly what most critics have been doing.

First, some words about the crying need for general climate education, as evidence by a sampling of comments appearing here. A recent post on the Energy Secretary''s warning about the impact of global warming on California agriculture prompted this reaction from a reader who evidently doesn''t know that students of climate are called climatologists, not climatists or cosmologists: ''Why are the climatists so worried about the environment? They are the same ones that say the universe just magically appeared from nothing. Can't have it both ways.''

A post about a recent PNAS paper on long-term climate impacts got this response from a reader who appears to have not quite grasped the distinction between weather and climate: ''There is NO scientific data based climate change model that can predict even next year's global temperature, let alone 10 years for now.'' Actually, though we can''t accurately predict what the weather will be a week or two from now, we can and do accurately predict what the climate will be a year and ten years from now. (And we also can accurately predict, and have done so, what the long-term impact of a major volcanic eruption will be.)

In reaction to the same reader''s disbelief ''that the IEEE has fallen for the psuedo science of Global Warming/Climate Change,'' a reader in Australia wondered why he wasn''t falling off the bottom of the Earth, since it''s flat.

Then there is this comment, which is just flat wrong: ''The fact that respected scientists disputing human causes for climate change now far outnumber respected scientists blaming humans for it, has been completely ignored by the liberal media.'' The fact is, about 99 out of 100 climatologists fully subscribe to the claim that the world''s climate is being adversely affected by human activity.

The American Museum of Natural History had an opportunity to describe and explain how climatologists have arrived at that conclusion, to explore its implications, and to do so taking advantage of all the best in interactive, engaging display technology that museums have to offer. It has completely botched that job. It doesn''t even do a good job of explaining the rudiments of climate change--the greenhouse effect, the relative irradiation of the poles and the equator, the difference between weather and climate--let alone offer viewers opportunities to interact and engage.

To take one very random example, one panel tells us how in upstate New York a peeper frog''s peeping signals the beginning of spring, and that this frog now starts peeping two weeks earlier than decades ago. But do we hear the sound of the frog peeping? Do we see an actual frog, or at least a video of the frog? No we don''t.

In the next to last major exhibition area (the seventh of eight), which is called Changing Land,we see panels about more intense storms, more droughts, and more wildfire. But we see nothing about the land effect that is by far the most serious and alarming, the impact on the world''s major agricultural regions. (This is such a stunning oversight, I have to say, one wonders if some corporate sponsor somehow sabotaged the exhibit.)

At the end of that next to last room on land--a point where you can assume that everybody''s attention is flagging--there''s a small panel listing the sources of knowledge about the Earth''s climate history: tree rings, lake sediments, corals, cave deposits, ice cores. WHY ISN''T THAT PANEL A WHOLE ROOM, AND WHY ISN''T IT THE FIRST ROOM IN THE EXHIBIT? The first thing the skeptical visitor needs to understand is how scientists have arrived at the knowledge we have about climate. It is here, right at the beginning, to take a very important example, that viewers should be told how climatologists have teased a history of world temperatures out of ice cores--a fundamental that is never explaining anywhere in the exhibit, and to the extent it''s mentioned at all, is explained misleadingly.

The last room in the exhibit, A New Energy Future, describes some promising renewable and carbon-free energy sources in development. It comes as no surprise, after the previous seven rooms, that no mention is made of their relative costs or the technical maturity (or immaturity) of the various green energy contenders.

The Museum of Natural History is not cheap. In fact, it's one of the world''s museums that''s gone the furthest in turning itself into an all-round money machine, with many unappealing dimensions. It''s still well worth visiting, to see the fabulously redesigned dinosaur and marine exhibits, the famous Roosevelt-era dioramas of wildlife and human cultures, and much else besides. But the combined cost of general admission and the special climate exhibit, at $24 per adult, is not worth it. Skip the climate part, which is not worth a dime.


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