New Koch-Funded Fossil Exhibit at the Smithsonian Is Curiously Quiet on Fossil Fuels
By Michael Svobod
After five years and $39 million, the Smithsonian's completely renovated Hall of Fossils is open again — complete with T. rex and a message about climate science. But though the exhibit clearly communicates the facts about human influence on Earth's climate, it is oddly quiet about the most important solution to the problem: rapidly reducing fossil fuel use.
The exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, called "Deep Time," was eagerly anticipated. Over 40,000 people toured it just on the opening weekend of June 8.
Equally enthusiastic were the stories filed by the reporters who covered the exhibit for the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, the Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press and ABC. Many admired how boldly the exhibit broke with tradition. Instead of isolated individual specimens, the new exhibit features ensembles of displayed fossils, related either by a shared ecosystem or an evolutionary lineage. Throughout, the exhibit connects those fossils with Earth's geologic history, including the new era in which one species, Homo sapiens, is changing the planet and its climate.
As museum director Kirk Johnson explained in an interview, the exhibit weaves together four narrative threads: climate, evolution, extinctions, and humans. In the 21st century, he explained, it would be both unscientific and irresponsible to tell the story of the dinosaurs without also talking about how humans have shaped the future: "Our ancient history holds very relevant clues for what might happen."
But many news outlets have called attention also to the new name of the exhibit space: The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils.
The director emeritus of Koch Industries, the largest privately owned fossil fuel company in the U.S., David H. Koch has for many years collaborated with his brother Charles in funding groups that questioned the science of climate change and lobbied against efforts to enact climate policies. Three days after the "Deep Time" exhibit opened, in fact, Climate Nexus reported that Koch-funded groups sent a letter to Congress reiterating their vehement opposition to a proposed carbon tax.
Had David Koch's $35 million fossil-fueled contribution to the Smithsonian affected how the project's directors rewrote the story of the Smithsonian's fossils?
In response to a version of this question from Joshua Johnson, host of the nationally syndicated radio program 1A, museum director Kirk Johnson answered, "There's a bright red line between what we put into the exhibit and what the funder believes, thinks, or feels …. I can tell you that [David Koch] had no impact on the content of the exhibit."
And, indeed, visitor reactions gathered on that opening weekend by Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaplan indicated that an urgent message about climate change was coming through loud and clear. "We're terrified," one visitor told the Post. "I'm glad it's here in many places. It needs to be a big billboard with flashing lights."
But in walking through the exhibit attending specifically to what it says on the subject, many may emerge with a more ambiguous take-away message. Koch in some way very likely did influence the exhibit, but not by leaning directly on the Smithsonian.
The Journey Through ‘Deep Time’
After passing through the portal for the exhibit, visitors face a choice of possible paths. On a rise to the left is a separate gallery for the Age of Humans.
Directly in front, the central path curves the full length of the hall, taking visitors back to the time of single-celled micro-organisms and to the glass-walled fossil lab where Smithsonian's paleontologists and paleobotanists work in full view. Along the way, visitors encounter glass-enclosed models of prehistoric scenes, including one that replicates, in miniature and fully fleshed, the most celebrated tableau in the hall, as shown above: the T. rex skeleton arranged in a live-action pose over the skeleton of a triceratops.
The central path is marked by posts that tell visitors how far back in time they have traveled. Dramatic black columns identify mass extinction events, most notably the asteroid impact that ended the Jurassic and the even more lethal end-Permian extinction, believed to have been caused by a period of high volcanic activity that dramatically increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Message: Earth has a turbulent history.
The elements most directly related to anthropogenic climate change are found in and around the Age of Humans. There a pair of graphs compares prehistoric and current increases in carbon dioxide. And captions on columns and walls state one of the exhibit's main messages:
We're changing the planet faster than any other species in Earth's history. What does this mean for our future?
The evidence is clear: We are causing rapid, unprecedented change to our planet. But there is hope — we can adapt, innovate, and collaborate to leave a positive legacy.
A video loop in a side exhibit — "Finding Fossils in Coal Mines" — comes to the same conclusion: "Coal connects the climate of the deep past to the climate of today. What we do with coal today will change the future of Earth's climate."
Fossils fuels are changing the climate. Couldn't be clearer, right?
An Odd Restraint
Yes, "fossil fuels are changing the climate" clearly states the problem. But at best it only implies the solution: Stop burning fossil fuels. An odd reticence about remedies for humanity's reliance on fossil fuels pervades the exhibit.
Nowhere is the portion of global greenhouse gas emissions attributable to fossil fuels (versus beef production or deforestation, for example) spelled out.
Of the five videos that continuously loop in the small amphitheater devoted to "How Are We Changing the Planet?" only one addresses reducing the carbon in the atmosphere, and it focuses on how soils might store more carbon if more ecological farming practices were adopted. The other four videos showcase efforts by communities to adapt to urban heat waves, storm surges, and rising sea levels, and to reduce humanity's impact on the oceans.
Nowhere within Deep Time are alternative sources of energy highlighted. To see how much wind and solar energy could be tapped across the globe, one has to go to the nearby ocean hall.
And nowhere within the fossil hall can one find a statement that approaches the summaries offered of the most recent IPCC report, such as this one from Vox: "We have just 12 years to make massive and unprecedented changes to global energy infrastructure to limit global warming to moderate levels."
Why ‘Deep Time’ Holds Back on Climate Solutions
Within the media coverage of the hall's reopening one can find two reasons for this reticence. A third can be inferred from the Smithsonian's somewhat delicate position as a nonpartisan, government-funded institution.
The first reason is practical. To avoid instantly dating the material, graphs extend into the future and captions do not include relative references. Thus, a warning that humanity has just "12 years to make massive and unprecedented changes to global energy infrastructure" was not an option.
The second reason is directly related to the vision of "deep time" promoted by Smithsonian. As Johnson observed in his 1A interview, for 75 percent of Earth's history the poles were ice-free: "There were palm trees in the Arctic and forests covered Antarctica." An ice-free future does not mean a life-less nor even a human-less planet.
One of the exhibition's core team members, paleontologist Scot Wing, elaborated on this view for the Christian Science Monitor: "There's also no reason from the fossil record to feel that we've endangered life on Earth as a whole, or even really ourselves. We seem to be pretty resilient and the technology we have is pretty good at buffering us from bad environments."
After contemplating the end-Permian extinction, it seems, the prospect of breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold does not seem so daunting — which is not to say that the consequences of climate change won't be disastrous.
A third reason for the exhibit's reticence might be inferred from the Smithsonian's delicate relationship with the government, and here the Koch brothers' aggressive anti-climate lobbying may be a factor.
To retain its nonpartisan status, the Smithsonian must steer clear of policy disputes. And in the U.S., major fossil-fuel industry funders, like the Koch brothers, have successfully created disputes even on climate science, for which a broad scientific consensus can be demonstrated. Having pointed out the problem, the exhibit's creators may feel that pointing out the most logical solution — stop relying on fossil fuels — ventures too far into policy.
Facts With Implications for the Future
According to museum director Kirk Johnson, the National Museum of Natural History greets roughly 40 million unique visitors each decade. What message will the next 40 million visitors take away from the Deep Time exhibit?
They will see that there is a problem. But they will also be given reasons for confidence – or at least reasons not to panic. Most may draw the logical conclusion: Humans must reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. But as Kirk Johnson acknowledged to the Washington Post, "I have no doubt that the kind of individual who is inclined to deny climate change will find it in their soul to do that to this exhibit.
"But this is basic science," he told the Post. "We're actually looking at facts about our planet's history, and then just saying it looks like these facts have implications for the future."
That point may include the Smithsonian's own future, as its National Mall location is itself one of the lowest parts of the low-lying District of Columbia, making it, too, vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme rain storms, such as those that plagued the D.C. area in the early weeks of July.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Yale Climate Connections.
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By Brett Wilkins
As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.
The report, Changing Our Ways: Behavior Change and the Climate Crisis, found that nearly half the growth in absolute global emissions was caused by the world's richest 10%, with the most affluent 5% alone contributing 37%.
"In the year when the UK hosts COP26, and while the government continues to reward some of Britain's biggest polluters through tax credits, the commission report shows why this is precisely the wrong way to meet the UK's climate targets," the report's introduction states.
The authors of the report urge United Kingdom policymakers to focus on this so-called "polluter elite" in an effort to persuade wealthy people to adopt more sustainable behavior, while providing "affordable, available low-carbon alternatives to poorer households."
The report found that the "polluter elite" must make "dramatic" lifestyle changes in order to meet the UK's goal — based on the Paris climate agreement's preferential objective — of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial levels.
In addition to highlighting previous recommendations — including reducing meat consumption, reducing food waste, and switching to electric vehicles and solar power — the report recommends that policymakers take the following steps:
- Implement frequent flyer levies;
- Enact bans on selling and promoting SUVs and other high polluting vehicles;
- Reverse the UK's recent move to cut green grants for homes and electric cars; and
- Build just transitions by supporting electric public transport and community energy schemes.
"We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute by far more than their share of carbon emissions," Peter Newell, a Sussex University professor and lead author of the report, told the BBC.
"These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most, and live in the biggest homes which they can easily afford to heat, so they tend not to worry if they're well insulated or not," said Newell. "They're also the sort of people who could really afford good insulation and solar panels if they wanted to."
Newell said that wealthy people "simply must fly less and drive less. Even if they own an electric SUV, that's still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place."
"Rich people who fly a lot may think they can offset their emissions by tree-planting schemes or projects to capture carbon from the air," Newell added. "But these schemes are highly contentious and they're not proven over time."
The report concludes that "we are all on a journey and the final destination is as yet unclear. There are many contradictory road maps about where we might want to get to and how, based on different theories of value and premised on diverse values."
"Promisingly, we have brought about positive change before, and there are at least some positive signs that there is an appetite to do what is necessary to live differently but well on the planet we call home," it states.
The new report follows a September 2020 Oxfam International study that revealed the wealthiest 1% of the world's population is responsible for emitting more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of humanity combined.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Paul Brown
It may come as a surprise to realize that a plant struggling for survival in a harsh environment is also doing its bit to save the planet from the threats of the rapidly changing climate. But that's what Mexico's cactuses are managing to do.
Research published in the journal The Science of Nature shows that desert soils supporting a high density of cactus contain large quantities of stored bio-minerals (minerals produced by living organisms), formed by the action of the plants in extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Not only that. Cactuses can also be harvested, processed and turned into a form of leather used to make fashion accessories like purses and wallets.
These two attributes have been turned into a successful business by a Mexican/American company, CACTO. It claims to be the first "carbon negative fashion company in the Americas" − in other words, its activities remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it creates in making and marketing its products.
No Animals Involved
This is a bold claim in an industry struggling with its poor environmental record. According to McKinsey and Co. the worldwide fashion industry emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases as France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. But CACTO gives Mexico's cactuses special treatment.
CACTO's products are vegan and so allow a growing class of consumers to buy leather objects that are made without any animal products.
The research into the ability of cactus to extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it was carried out on one cactus species, the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which can grow to 40 feet.
It is native to the Sonoran desert in Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, and shares with all other cactus varieties the same abilities for dealing with carbon. This has proved a bonus for CACTO because cactuses are the most numerous plants in Mexico.
CACTO's plantations are organic, fed by rainwater, free of herbicides and pesticides, and renewable, and after the ears, or leaves; of the cactus are harvested, the plant grows a replacement in six to eight months. This regeneration allows repeat harvesting. The leaves are then sun-dried to avoid using any electricity. The company's products (available only in green or black) are on sale in more than 100 countries.
CACTO was founded by Jesus Chavez, a climate campaigner, and was designed to have sustainability as a guiding principle at the core of its operation. The entire production cycle is closely monitored by its staff, from the sourcing of materials to production, packaging, distribution and shipping.
Through a partnership with a Swiss non-profit organisation, On a Mission, CACTO says its staff have measured and offset 150% of its CO2 emissions through sustainable reforestation worldwide.
The measurement and offsetting process will take place every six months for the next 10 years. Through several emergent partnerships, the company says it aims to offset at least 1000% of the emissions it generates by the end of 2021.
Jesus Chavez said: "If we want to succeed in reaching net zero carbon emissions well before 2050 and avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we must all work in concert in whatever capacity we are able to.
"Industries across the board need to benefit from existing technology and offsetting programs to become carbon-negative, and to invest in new research and innovation to reach that goal faster. The decisions we make this decade will determine the fate of humanity for centuries to come. It is up to us now."
He said customers around the world wanted alternatives to materials that increased pollution and to unethical manufacturing processes.
CACTO hopes to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs to make clear what has been evident to specialists for decades, that decoupling emissions from economic growth is not only feasible, but is the smartest, fastest and most responsible way to grow. Mexico's cactuses bear a heavy responsibility on their ears − or leaves − or branches.
Reposted with permission from Climate News Network.
Climate change, activities that contribute to it, and dams pose grave threats to America's rivers, according to American Rivers.
The annual report ranks the county's 10 rivers most endangered by human activity that also have a critical decision point coming in the next year that could change the river's fate.
Four dams are choking the Snake River — earning it the top spot in the report — obstructing salmon and posing an existential threat to Native American tribes in the region who depend on the fish for food, culture and their identities.
Advocates are calling on President Biden to remove the federal dams and revitalize the river and its ecosystem.
Toxic coal ash pollutes the Lower Missouri, which also is experiencing an increase in climate-driven flooding, putting it second on the list, while Iowa's Raccoon River, at number nine, faces threats from industrial agriculture.
Between them are rivers befouled by sewage, polluted or threatened by mining, and otherwise dammed or mismanaged.
"Rivers are among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet, and threats to rivers are threats to human health, safety and survival," American Rivers head Tom Kiernan said.
"If we want a future of clean water and healthy rivers everywhere, for everyone, we must prioritize environmental justice."
For a deeper dive:
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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