Climate change protesters march on the Mall

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 06/16/2015 07:55 AM EDT

“This is what makes America different from all the other countries,” a dad told his two children, referring to freedom of speech, as they watched a group of protesters yesterday outside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

"This is what makes America different from all the other countries," a dad told his two children, referring to freedom of speech, as they watched a group of protesters yesterday outside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The protesters, 50-strong, were holding placards and chanting "Kick Koch off the board!" alternating with "Fire Willie Soon" and "Cut ties to fossil fuels." Inside the Smithsonian Castle, the board of regents was holding its annual meeting.

The protesters wanted David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries and a climate change skeptic, to be removed from the board of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. They also wanted the institute to fire Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who wrongly asserts that human-caused climate change is not happening. Soon has received $1.25 million in funding from a number of fossil fuel companies (ClimateWire, Feb. 24).

Beka Economopoulos and others demonstrate outside the Smithsonian Institution’s annual board meeting yesterday. She wants Willie Soon, a climate skeptic scientist at an astrophysics center affiliated with the Smithsonian, to be removed for receiving funds from fossil fuel companies. | Photo by Gayathri Vaidyanathan.

A third demand was that the world should transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The protesters had collected 400,000 petition signatures through a drive organized by the Natural History Museum, a museum without a physical presence run by Beka Economopoulos (ClimateWire, March 24). The protest was organized by the museum and the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.

The petitions, collected in four archival file storage boxes, were handed to John Gibbons, press secretary at the Smithsonian Institution, and his colleagues.

The protest is one in a series of events planned ahead of a climate march scheduled for Sept. 20 and 21, days before Pope Francis is to visit D.C. The pope has called climate change a moral issue.

The protesters echoed that message: "Inaction is immoral," one placard stated.

Anger over Koch funding

The Smithsonian has become a target for climate change activists because of the Kochs. The Koch Foundation has contributed $35 million to renovate the dinosaur exhibit in D.C. An exhibit on human evolution is named the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.

The exhibit details how historical climate change events shaped the evolution of humans. And the exhibit suggests that humans may evolve in the future.

The implicit message of the exhibit is that historical climate change has been beneficial to our species in helping us walk upright, gain bigger brains and master tool use. Could future climate change driven by human emissions be similarly beneficial? The exhibit says not, but in a quiet manner.

It is the final essay in a companion volume that goes along with the exhibit, written by Richard Potts, the director of the Human Origins program at the Smithsonian and the curator of the exhibit.

Joe Romm, climate activist and co-founder of ThinkProgress, finds this an "outright abomination."

Past climate changes were local events that affected small groups of early human ancestors, Romm said. Some human ancestors migrated to more favorable climates, where they evolved to modern humans over millions of years.

New-age information

In contrast, man-made climate change would affect all 7 billion people on Earth very rapidly, Romm said. These people have chosen where to live based on their belief that their environment was stable, he said.

"They can’t, like the Neanderthals, just up and leave," he said.

Potts defended the exhibit to ClimateWire in an email in March, saying that "it is an exhibition on the long course of human origins, and has done a lot to bring the subject of evolution to the public, rather than a hall on climate change as seems to be the incorrect implication."

Of the 50-odd protesters yesterday afternoon, almost all were passionate about the environment. Rana Koll-Mandel of the Montgomery County chapter of brought a friend visiting from Chicago.

The friend, Michael Becker, is not an environmentalist per se, but he believes the world is ours only for safekeeping and nature has to be taken care of.

Before the protest, he had not known that the Koch brothers had a role in the Smithsonian and were "mucking around with science," he said.

Now that he does, he wants them out.