Climate Change Exhibit Gets It (Mostly) Right

By Jack Williams ©2015

NEW YORK CITY—The American Museum of Natural History at Central Park West and 79th Street is always worth a visit when you’re in New York City. If you are curious about all of the talk about climate change, the museum is especially worth visiting to see “Climate Change: The Threat to Life and a New Energy Future” exhibit.

The exhibit will be there until August 16, 2009.

It does a fine job of explaining some fairly complicated science to schoolchildren and to adults who don’t feel at ease with science. Adults don’t have to worry about feeling they’ve wandered into a children’s show. The displays and text don’t talk down to anyone.

I have only a few quibbles with the exhibit, beginning with the title.

Whoever composed the title must have caught up on a lot of sleep during middle school English classes.

Most educated English speakers would wonder whether the author really means that climate change is a threat to both Life and to a New Energy Future. It’s obvious that the title means something like, “climate change threatens life and should change the ways we use energy.”

As far as that goes, saying that climate change is a threat to life is almost as fatuous as a slogan such as “Save the Planet, Stop Global Warming.” The “planet” doesn’t care about global warming; it’s been much warmer as well as much colder in the past and just keeps on spinning on its axis and orbiting the sun.

It takes more than climate change to threaten “life” on Earth. Life of many kinds has managed to survive some major mass extinctions such of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. A warming earth is threatening some forms of life, such as coral reefs and the creatures that depend on them in part because the change is too fast for all plants or animals that can’t move to a friendlier environment to evolve the needed adaptations.

The main threat, however, is almost certainly to the poorest people on earth.

These quibbles aside, the exhibit effectively illustrates how human energy use and the climate have been entwined since the Industrial Revolution, although we have only recently started to see some obvious effects.

When you walk into the exhibit you see a red line along the walls representing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere beginning in the year 1600, which rises with the growth in human population and the growth of the global economy. This is important. Until people began using large amounts of coal, what we now call “renewable” energy—mostly firewood and human labor—powered all of the earth’s economies with wind and waterpower playing small roles.

Near the beginning of your stroll through the exhibit, you see text explaining that the red line shows the PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that “this abbreviation stands for parts per million. It is the ratio of the number of CO2 molecules to the total number of molecules of dry air. That is, 274 ppm means 274 molecules of CO2 per million molecules of dry air, or 0.0274 percent.”

Those trying to communicate science sometimes neglect such simple, but key, explanations.

I liked the model of the steam engine that Thomas Newcomen invented in 1712 with the explanation of how the improvements that James Watt made in the basic design in 1769 meant that steam engines could produce twice as much power while using half as much coal. The exhibit traces the continuing improvements in the efficiency of our energy use, but this hasn’t kept up with the growth of population and the global economy.

My biggest quibble with the exhibit is the diorama showing a polar bear foraging in a garbage dump. Everyone’s heard of how climate change is threatening polar bears and this diorama could lead them to think that the problem is ordinary pollution, such as open garbage dumps.

Bears eating deadly things such as batteries in garbage dumps is a concern but one that’s much easier to address than climate change. For example, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, where tourists go to see polar bears, has closed the dump that used to attract bears. Visitors are now more likely to see polar bears in more natural conditions.

The polar bear diorama in the Climate Change exhibit. Photo by Jack Williams.

The polar bear diorama in the Climate Change exhibit.Photo by Jack Williams.

A more accurate diorama could be based on the “Productive polar oceans” graphic and the text near it on page 295 of The AMS Weather Book. These show and tell how a reduction in Arctic Ocean sea ice threatens both the food web that keeps polar bears alive as well as the ice they use while hunting seals.

Another minor quibble is that a satellite view of a tropical cyclone is used to illustrate that stronger storms are a consequence of global warming. The text here, however, notes that: “Tropical cyclones—also called hurricanes or typhoons—are the most powerful storms on Earth and feed on warm waters at the ocean surface. Scientists debate whether warming ocean waters affect hurricane frequency and strength. Most experts agree, however, that warming is causing more intense rainstorms, tornados and other unusual weather phenomena.”

A photo of flooding being caused by heavy rain would be a more accurate, but maybe not as sexy, illustration of the effects of a changing climate.

A tropical cyclone would be a good illustration for text describing the push and pull of scientific ideas that could eventually come up with satisfactory answers to how a changing climate will affect the strongest storms on earth. You’ll find more on this by going to The AMS Weather Book’s Web note on Hurricanes and Climate Change.

A visitor who’s knowledgeable about climate science will find little gems throughout the exhibit. For example, the display on how added carbon dioxide is making the oceans more acidic has a nice chart of the Ph scale using everyday examples of materials to illustrate the numbers.

Worthwhile museum exhibits such as this one encourage further exploration. I, of course, think that The AMS Weather Book is a good place to begin. For instance, it answers the question that the exhibit doesn’t about why some substances, such as carbon dioxide, are greenhouse gases while others are not. Imagine what earth would be like if nitrogen, which accounts for roughly 78 percent of earth’s atmosphere, were a greenhouse gas. Another example from the book is the discussion of hurricanes as heat engines in Chapter 10, which points out how Watt’s steam engine improvements amounted to an application of what later came to be called the laws of thermodynamics.

For information on the museum’s visiting hours, how to get there, and its other exhibits, go the American Museum of Natural History home page. The museum’s Climate Change exhibit Web site has much of the material in the exhibit and links to a lot more information. It’s the next best thing to a visiting the Museum.

Note: A dateline on a blog post, such as this one, shows that Jack reported from that location.

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