Global Warming Heats Up at the Smithsonian

I thought I was just dropping my kid off at school this lovely St. Patrick’s Day morning, but instead we stumbled onto an environmental scuffle. My son attends kindergarten inside the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, but this morning it was the scene outside that grabbed our attention. 

Greenpeace activists were staging a “climate-crime-scene investigation” at the entrance to the museum. We had to pass “climate-crime unit” squad cars (with flashing green signals) and emergency vehicles, yellow crime-scene tape, and a line of activists holding up WANTED signs for a billionaire by the name of David Koch and his brother Charles.

Of course, the first thing that needed to happen was for me to get my son to school on time, but I went back outside to ask them what on earth was going on.

It turns out today was the opening ceremony of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, a new (and I would say, fabulous), $20.7 million permanent exhibit showcasing 6 million years of human evolution. 

Some $15 million of its budget came from Koch. On its WANTED poster, Greenpeace accuses him and his brother of “Fueling Catastrophic Climate Change, Peddling Fossil Fuel Addiction, Funding Junk Science to Deny Global Warming, Endangering People, The Planet and Our Future.”

According to a Washington Post story earlier this month “Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by David H. Koch, will kick off a campaign aimed at pushing lawmakers to block the EPA's scientific finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. The multi-million dollar campaign, which will include social networking and e-mail appeals as well as live events and paid radio and television advertising, will start March 22 in Hot Springs.”

This morning, Greenpeace activists left disappointed after Koch didn’t show. But they say their investigation continues, and they point to what they describe as a successful effort in 2007 to stop the American Petroleum Institute’s effort to fund the museum’s Ocean Hall as an example of vetting practices they hope the museum would practice. 

Meanwhile, inside the museum, a private tour of the new exhibit was given to the press and, for a few hours today, the exhibit was opened to the public before its full opening on March 19. Smithsonian press officer Annalisa Meyer, standing next to one part of the exhibit detailing rising carbon-dioxide levels explained, “Donors do not have any influence on exhibits. They are not consulted, they are not part of the discussion of what goes into what you’re seeing here.” Another part of the exhibit, which also deals with climate change, shows how our bodies have evolved over millions of years, with examples of earlier, shorter skeletons and now the taller version of ourselves. “We got longer and linear as our bodies evolved over time and adapted to a warmer climate,” Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program, told me. (Moments earlier he had been fielding questions on intelligent design and whether the exhibit explored it in any way, which it does not. Expect this to be a much-discussed exhibit in the weeks to come).

Randall Kremer, director of public affairs for the Natural History Museum, says they are thankful for Koch’s gift. “There are not many philanthropists who have given as much as Koch to arts and science. I think his interest lies in the scientific verification of a whole range of things.”