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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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
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The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
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Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."