|October 17, 2008|
Apocalypse Now, via Diorama
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Water, 16 feet of it, smothers the southern tip of Manhattan, covering the landfill of Battery Park City. Tropic coral reefs are stripped of life, their rocks pocked with contusions. Polar bears rummage in junk heaps seeking food amid construction debris. Glaciers split into ice chips, floods ravage coastlines, droughts parch the Earth and forest fires rage untamable.
If the End of Days were going to be portrayed in a museum exhibition, it might look like the array of natural disasters, both real and imagined, that can be found at “Climate Change,” which opens Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History.
There is something almost biblical about these worst-case scenarios, apocalyptically suggested even in the subtitle: “The Threat to Life and a New Energy Future.” And if the plagues promised with global warming don’t include an onslaught of frogs, there is more than enough to worry about: the exhibition predicts proliferation of malaria and desperate foraging of wildlife.
All this is because of something that can’t be seen or smelled or touched, a gas plentifully found in the natural world: carbon dioxide. Produced in abundance by an industrial urban world that depends on the burning of coal and oil, this gas has so increased its atmospheric presence and has so clear a “greenhouse effect” — preventing heat from escaping the Earth — that, the show argues, the sun’s energy is already raising the planet’s temperature (about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century), with doleful consequences to follow.
This exhibition, organized by Edmond A. Mathez, curator in the earth and planetary sciences department at the museum, together with Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton University who has been active in international efforts to control global warming, is grim and unrelenting, but not without hope. Its final gallery is full of alternative energy and conservation proposals, and younger visitors will find some amusement as they try to cut down their carbon footprints with interactive displays.
The show’s focus, however, is on how dire a state of crisis we are in. Emerging from this ambitious and, at times, overwrought show, you almost expect to see a new set of dioramas and fossilized skeletons showing how Homo sapiens once dwelt on this planet in arrogant mastery before the species burned its way to oblivion. This vision of global warming — already globally familiar — will also globe-trot to St. Louis, Cleveland and Chicago, as well as Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, South Korea and Mexico.
There are real issues to be considered here — questions about probabilities, alternative technologies, industrial evolution, relationships between developed and undeveloped nations — but they are never really explored. The main impression, instead, is of an almost religious urgency. “Repent!” these displays seem to call out, “Repent! Before it’s too late!” And perhaps the religious overtones are no accident. Recently the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in The New York Review of Books that environmentalism has become a “worldwide secular religion” in which the “path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible.”
Only here the urgency is not otherworldly. The glimpses of what could happen or what might happen or what “many experts” or “most experts” think will happen — as the exhibition puts it again and again — are meant to be spurs to immediate action. “Climate has changed throughout Earth’s long history,” but this time is different, the exhibition says, because “for the first time, humans are causing it.” A worldwide effort is required, “and it needs to start now.”
So running through the show is a thread mixing urgency and blame. That same combination is what gives the issue of global warming so political an edge right now: the urgency is directed toward particular policies and the blame toward particular parties. The politicization makes it all the more difficult to talk about global warming; a lot of money — perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars across the globe — is also at stake in the changes being sought. And while there is a scientific consensus about global warming, there is also a significant minority of skeptics about one portion or another of the theory, and the issues are notoriously complex. Mr. Dyson said the minority of scientific skeptics and the majority of scientific believers now engage in a passionate “dialogue of the deaf,” in which very little debate or convincing goes on.
It would have been helpful had the exhibition taken such disagreements and passions into account and made its case less sensationally. Though its sweep is an order of magnitude more sober than Al Gore was in the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the exhibition’s insistence inspires wariness. That begins even in the opening gallery where a red neon line stretches across two walls showing the increase of the “heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide” in the atmosphere over the last 400 years. The graph provides a powerful image of a rising line overlaying images of technological change and heading steeply upward after 1950.
But the graph is set up so the line begins at a level below a child’s knees and ends when it is far over an adult’s head. The numbers tell us that the increase over 400 years was about 40 percent; the image makes it seem as if the increase was perhaps 600 percent. One gets a similar sensation from a table showing month-by-month warming in recent years, when compared to average monthly temperatures between 1951 and 1980. That interval seems arbitrary and includes periods of falling temperatures (which help make the contrast greater). Yet when illustrating that “temperature and CO2 march in lockstep,” the show chooses intervals of centuries instead. Why not make the case with more consistency instead of seeking greatest effect? That would also require some explanation of seeming anomalies, for example, the way the monthly table shows increases in temperatures between 1900 and 1940, followed by decreases until the late 1970s — facts that don’t seem in lockstep with the graph of carbon dioxide concentrations.
And why show a model of Lower Manhattan with the stark consequences of a five-meter rise in ocean level? That would happen, we are told, if there were a complete “polar ice-sheet meltdown,” something that “experts consider unlikely to happen anytime soon.” The model “doesn’t predict the future,” the text acknowledges, but “it does illustrate one possible outcome,” though perhaps “thousands of years in the future.” In other words this is something so unlikely that it is unconnected to either immediate threat or practical concern. The image is used to stir advocacy.
Such tendencies are troubling. One of the controversies about global warming, after all, recently raised by Bjorn Lomborg in his “Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” called “Cool It,” is that policies adopted to deal with climate change must be weighed according to their costs. Some measures may be extremely expensive yet almost inconsequential. But how can a policy be assessed if its alternative is presented as apocalypse?
Apocalypse is too easy a prediction when there is so much still uncertain; no one has succeeded in completely modeling climate’s past, let alone its future. “Many experts think,” we are told, that warmer ocean waters will make hurricanes more powerful. But “it is difficult to predict how much more intense hurricanes could become.” That makes it seem as if this is some rough guess, when the claims being made for climate change are in the precision of the observations and conclusions. And are the “many experts” even correct about hurricanes? The scientist (and global-warming skeptic) Roy W. Spencer has pointed out that experts at the National Hurricane Center have been warning for decades that there had been a lull in hurricane activity and that a natural 30-to-40-year cycle would bring on a resurgence, something having no connection at all to global warming.
Some dangers and data are beyond question, but some seem not to be, given the hedging and uses of “likely” often invoked here. Yes, there is reason for concern and conservation. But what we need from a museum is not proselytizing but a more reflective analysis. An interactive display shows how carbon dioxide emissions can be decreased by altering habits, for example, but what impact will that actually have on changes in global temperature? And if there are counterarguments to be made about aspects of global warming, why can’t they be addressed here? Take a look at the two sides of the Web site climatedebatedaily.com to see how much disagreement there can be.
This exhibition, in other words, made me feel like an agnostic attending church and listening to sermons about damnation. It may all be true — some of it assuredly is — but from a museum, particularly one devoted to natural science, it is reasonable to seek more revelation.