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The climate change misinformation at a top museum is not a conservative conspiracy

The climate change misinformation at a top museum is not a conservative conspiracy


A sign at the American Museum of Natural History has outdated information about climate change

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The David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing At The American Museum Of Natural History
Visitors view the fossils from the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History on July 18th, 2015.
Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Twitter users — including some climate scientists — were upset by a plaque at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, which seems to be spreading misinformation about climate change. The panel, titled “Recent Climatic Changes and Extinctions,” misstates the role that human emissions of greenhouse gases play in causing global warming. It also says that, although we’re currently living in one of Earth’s warm periods, “there is no reason to believe that another Ice Age won’t come.” But it turns out, the panel was put up 25 years ago, according to the museum, so it contains outdated information that reads very differently today.

Images of the sign were first tweeted by environmental economist Jonah Busch, and were shared over 2,000 times. Busch tweeted that the panel is at the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing, which was funded by right-wing philanthropist and fossil fuel magnate David H. Koch, and asked the museum to “separate this panel from its donor’s interest.” The tweet sparked outrage among scientists and the general public: “Dear @AMNH I bring my young kids to visit regularly because science & natural history is fascinating, inspiring and fun,” one tweet read. “Please do not misguide their curious minds. If we can’t even trust the AMNH to give us the facts who can we? Very sad.”

But the sign is actually located in the Hall of Advanced Mammals in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives, and was installed “many years before David Koch supported the Dinosaur Halls,” says Kendra Snyder, a spokesperson for the AMNH, in an email to The Verge. Busch says he didn’t realize that hall was separate from the dinosaur wing because both are on the same floor. Because some of the permanent exhibitions at the AMNH were funded by Exxon as well as the Koch brothers, which are known funders of climate deniers, “it makes it that much harder to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Busch tells The Verge. But Snyder says that at the AMNH, “scientific and educational content is determined by scientists and educators. That is not the role of donors.”

The sign reflects the scientific data available at the time, Snyder says, adding that today, that same information is “clearly subject to misinterpretation.” “If that label copy were written today it would likely come with a different context and emphasis, including more recent scientific data,” Snyder says. “This happens sometimes in permanent halls and we do review existing content — this is a case where we will do that.”

David H. Koch has been a controversial figure at the AMNH. He’s given millions of dollars to the museum, but he stepped down from its board in 2016, amid criticism from climate scientists and environmental groups, according to The New York Times. In fact, along with his brother Charles, David Koch has been instrumental in swaying the GOP’s stance on climate change, supporting the campaigns of lawmakers who are against regulations to curb global warming, according to The New York Times.

The dinosaur wing at the AMNH still bears his name. But the plaque in question is not in that wing, according to Snyder. The sign explains what causes ice ages, Earth’s cyclical periods when temperatures drop and glaciers spread. The sign says that, “There is no reason to believe that another Ice Age won’t come. In the past, warm cycles lasted about 10,000 years, and it’s been that long since the last cool period.” But that’s probably wrong, based on what we know today. Because we pump heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the world is warming up — and that is messing up Earth’s cycles of cold and warm spells. In fact, our CO2 emissions will delay the onset of the next ice age by at least 100,000 years, according to a 2016 paper published in Nature.

The sign in the dinosaur wing also says that, “Human-made pollutants may also have an effect on the Earth’s climatic cycle.” Today, using the word “may” is misleading: the role our greenhouse gas emissions play in causing climate change is well established. Virtually all scientists agree that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are to blame for the warming up of our planet. In fact, the entire world — except the United States — is working together to cut emissions in order to curb global warming.

The outdated information at the AMNH is concerning because the museum is a world renown educational institution. Some 5 million people visit the museum every year and, as Busch says, “most are not climate experts.” So it’s important that what they read about such a controversial topic as climate change is accurate. When Busch found out that the sign was outdated, not pushing some particular agenda, he was surprised nonetheless.

“This is a world class institution,” he says. “I guess I was surprised to learn that they would let information that’s erroneous now, even if it was debatable at the time, stay up for 25 years without making a correction to it.”