Smithsonian Dragged into Climate Denial Controversy

The controversy over Koch Industries’ support for groups that deny the existence of climate change has metastasized.

On Thursday, blogs Think Progress and Climate Progress accused the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History of tailoring an exhibit on human evolution to the anti-global warming opinions of Koch Industries’ billionaire executive David H. Koch.

Koch contributed $15 million to the museum to fund the exhibit, called “The David H. Koch Hall of Human Evolution.”

Last week Greenpeace released a report exposing Koch Industries as the number one financier of climate change denial organizations–ahead of ExxonMobil and other oil companies.

According to Greenpeace, Koch has spent more than $400 million since 1997 battling climate change science and legislation. Koch also funded two European studies attacking the benefits of green technology which have been discredited.

At least he believes in evolution…

Climate Progress claims that the Koch Hall of Human Evolution, which opened March 17th, gives a “misleading” impression that “global warming is no big deal” because it does not distinguish between gradual climate change in the past, which may have had an effect on human evolution, and the much more drastic changes now occurring because of human activity.

Richard Potts, a paleoanthropologist and curator of anthropology at the museum, told Think Progress Koch had no influence over the content of the exhibit.

Reached for comment today the Smithsonian said it had “no comment” on the blogs’ accusations.

Both Climate Progress and Think Progress are projects of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal non-profit.

Skirting the issue? Or bowing to cash?

While the accusations may seem a bit hysterical and conspiracy-theory-ish at first blush, I did find the following at the bottom of a long discussion of evolution and climate change on the exhibit’s website:

The question ahead is how well our sources of resilience as a species will succeed as our alterations to the landscape, atmosphere, and water sources interact with the tendency of Earth’s environment to shift all on its own. This is an ‘experiment’ just now unfolding, one that has never been tried before. The intensity of environmental change seems likely to create entirely new survival challenges for the lone hominin species on the planet, and many other organisms as well.

An interesting choice of words: notice how the ambiguous term “alterations” is combined with “the tendency of Earth’s environment to shift all on its own,” a phenomenon they call an “experiment,” but which a consensus of scientists call “global warming.”

The careful language suggests the exhibit curators sought to avoid politically loaded topics like global warming. Whether they did so because of pressure from their major donor or just because of a desire to keep that controversy out of their evolution exhibit is an open question.

One controversy at a time

Ironically, the Smithsonian exhibit may have been designed to battle a different right-wing attack on science: the denial of evolutionary theory.

The huge 15,000 square foot hall, opened in the nation’s preeminent museum, seems designed, at least in part, to provide a very public refutation of intelligent design and other mumbo-jumbo. For it now to be caught in the climate change controversy, less than two weeks after its opening, is ironic indeed.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.