American Museum of Natural History Exhibit on Climate Change

December 18, 2008

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. ThomsonReuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is running a new exhibit on Climate Change. Prior to seeing the exhibit I had read one of the few reviews of it in the New York Times, which was very harsh and essentially described it as a version of ‘apocalypse now.’ Without having seen the exhibit, the review made me shake my head in disappointment that the Museum may have really overdone it and perhaps blown it.

However I just spent 3 hours going through the exhibit carefully and want to report that the NY Times review is incredibly misleading and even arrogant. It’s the kind of review I would have expected from the conservative Weekly Standard. The exhibit does not at all make one ” … feel like an agnostic attending church and listening to sermons about damnation …”

Instead, it was a vast compilation of basic science information and very well presented, with plenty of caveats. Although I know the subject matter intimately, I came away feeling anew the vastness of the “CO2 problem” which literally will impact every corner of the planet, from the depths of the oceans, to the top of the stratosphere to every living thing on Earth. On top of this of course are all the socio-economic and technological issues.

Contrary to the NY Times review, there was nothing wrong with showing historical CO2 concentrations, using a room-long red neon light — rising from “… a level below a child’s knees and end[ing] … far over an adult’s head.”

Indeed the CO2 data looks far more alarming when you compare it with the last few 100,000 years of data from ice core data (as Al Gore did and the exhibit does as well elsewhere). Then it looks to an atmospheric scientist like we have literally whacked the atmosphere with a greenhouse gas sledgehammer:

Similarly the museum graphic of month-by-month warming over the last century is absolutely fine, and interesting. The NY Times criticizes the exhibit’s use of 1951-1980 as the baseline for that graphic as ‘arbitrary,’ whereas in fact it is standard scientific practice for the data, as seen for example in the following NASA GISS graphic:

Using 1950-1980 as the baseline doesn’t distort the data at all. It is chosen because it is around the center of the record and is a relatively flat period of temperatures. Also, for the museum graphic it allows blue to be used for cooler periods and red for warmer periods, which is essential for the museum viewers to see the long term trends.
And so on and so on, each of the criticisms in the review is poorly informed.

The exhibit also does a very good job at bringing in some of the relatively newer areas of research, such as on the acidic affects of CO2 in the oceans and the Princeton ‘wedge’ model for emissions control. The film explaining the basic physics of CO2 infrared absorption of surface heat is also very good and I saw little children watching it rather intently, which is remarkable in itself.

One serious shortcoming is that no mention is made of the major policy options of carbon taxes/prices or ‘cap and trade’ measures. After witnessing the rapid response of Americans to $4.00+ gasoline prices, I tend to agree with Yale economist William Nordhaus’ view that merely exhorting Americans to voluntarily reduce their consumption of carbon (via light-bulbs, choosing efficient technologies, etc) without mentioning raising the price of carbon is “largely fluff.”

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