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.

6 responses

  1. The overwhelming paleoclimate evidence from around the globe is that the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was synchronous, world wide and much warmer than today.

    However, the MWP deniers will never admit the existence of the MWP because it means that their religious-like belief in AGW is exposed for the steaming pile of junk science that it truly is.

    In total, climate change is complex and not well understood.

    But this part is simple.

    If the world was warmer when CO2 levels were lower, CO2 cannot be the earth's temperature regulator.

    A thousand years ago, the Earth was warmer than it is today; before the social and industrial advances that have made modern people the healthiest and most prosperous in history. MWP deniers want us to believe that plant friendly, ocean cleansing and life giving CO2 is a bad thing to better advance their meglomanical desire to both boss around the developed world and further impoverish the poor while pocketing a lot of taxpayer money along the way.

    Taxing carbon is not the answer to the ever changing climate.There is only one answer to changes in climate that has ever worked for humanity.

    That is adaptation.

  2. You'd think after all the huge financial scandal that led to the resignation of the head of the Smithsonian that they would have learned their lesson. Shame on the Smithsonian for further sullying its good name by allowing Koch Industries propaganda. Bring back real science, please!

  3. orkneygal's comments need analysis

    1 = Massively wrong. Breathtakingly audacious black propaganda

    2 = Completely wrong. As above

    3 = Every part is not equally understood but enough is well known to be sure it will be a problem

    4 = OK, but the paragraph it refers to (the next one) is

    5 = Astonishingly ignorant. Uses ridiculous (and completely fallacious) logic. Nobody, repeat, nobody credible ever said that CO2 was the only “regulator”. The proportionate changes we are making to the atmospheric mix of gases are however creating more rapid changes than Nature ever threw at us before (short of asteroid impact)

    6 = Wrong. By using these second-hand arguments, Orkneygal betrays that she has chosen to believe non credible sources rather than credible sources. She has been sucked in by the tidal waves of crafted denier propaganda out there.

    7 = The climate is changing to a less optimum state faster than any of the natural mechanisms would have driven it. Something needs to be done rapidly. If Orkney gal doesn't like taxation, or cap and trade, she should come up with something else that works and stop using crafted denier memes designed to twist the mind of Joe Sixpack by falsely claiming that “saving the world” will hit him in the pocket

    8 = Past human adaptation to natural changes wasn't a walk in the park. Whole sub species are no longer with us. Adapting to what climate change will bring if we don't wean ourselves off carbon will be considerably more challenging than that – plant and animal populations need thousands of years to successfully adapt. They won't get that time. Remember that some of those plants are the crops we eat. Adaptation as a “strategy” is just another denier buzzword crafted to fool the innocent.

    Orkney gal should look outside her selectively blinkered box to see the answers to just about all her long demolished propaganda points at such as

  4. Actually I don't think the quoted comment is necessarily a problem. I read the full website exhibit entry too. If you read all of it, they make it clear that human history has had a lot of trouble from natural climate changes and some lineages have died out because of it.

    They don't directly mention human caused climate change in the quoted paragraph, or the web page it comes from, and maybe that happened because of the views of their sponsors – maybe not.

    The paragraph usefully makes it clear that we are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planetary life support system on top of any natural changes (which usually proved to be hazardous to health in the past). Doubly dangerous.

    They also, by stating “as our alterations to the landscape, atmosphere, and water sources interact with the tendency of Earth’s environment to shift all on its own”, usefully remind us that it is not “just” AGW climate change that is the only driver of ecosystem changes – that will probably bite us badly in the rear.

  5. I think the quoted paragraph smells of equivocation, of very careful writing attempting to weave a path through competing opinions. I do not know however. It could just be the way they decided to put it. And there is a lot to be said for looking at the long view when it comes to global warming, man-made or not. But let me ask, if global warming wasn't so politically controversial, don't you think it would be in there in black and white?

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