Climate scientists urge museums to stop accepting money from fossil fuel interests

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 03/24/2015 08:37 AM EDT

A group of scientists issued an open letter today calling on museums around the United States to cut ties with fossil fuel companies and others who obfuscate climate science.

A group of scientists issued an open letter today calling on museums around the United States to cut ties with fossil fuel companies and others who obfuscate climate science.

"We are deeply concerned by the links between museums of science and natural history with those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science," they said in the letter.

Among the scientists who signed the letter were James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a climate activist; Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University; George Woodwell, an ecologist and founder of the Woods Hole Research Center; and 31 others.


The letter will be sent to 334 natural history museums in the United States.

The initiative is helmed by the Natural History Museum, a museum without a physical presence that was set up in 2014 by Not an Alternative, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that tries to "affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions, and history" and inspire social change. The Natural History Museum currently does not receive funding from outside groups, said Beka Economopoulos, the co-founder. It is registered with the American Alliance of Museums.

Economopoulos linked the letter’s timing to news last month that Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who disagrees with the mainstream view on climate science, had received funding over the years from a number of fossil fuel companies. Soon did not always reveal the sources of his funds in articles that he published.

Economopoulos said that the ethical implications of accepting funding from such energy companies are now open to debate because of student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns at various universities (ClimateWire, Feb. 27).

Dr. Jim Hansen
Climate activist James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

However, back in 2010, when David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries and a climate change skeptic, had a permanent exhibit — the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins — at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the funding did not trigger an outcry.

In 2012, Koch donated $35 million to renovate the dinosaur hall at the National Museum of Natural History. And the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has a David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.

Scientists: Donations violate code of ethics

Climate activist Joe Romm visited the Human Origins hall in Washington, D.C., last week and wrote in a blog post yesterday that the exhibit does not address climate change adequately.

The exhibit’s "huge flaw is that it leaves visitors with the distinct impression that human-caused global warming is no big deal," Romm wrote.

Richard Potts, the director of the Human Origins program at the Smithsonian, said that the focus of the exhibition is on the long course of human origins and that it "has done a lot to bring the subject to the public, rather than a hall on climate change as seems to be the incorrect implication."

The exhibition comes with a companion book that explicitly addresses the "scientifically obvious impact" of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Potts said in an email.

The scientists wrote that museums that accept funding from energy companies are not following the code of ethics established by the American Alliance of Museums in 1991.

The code states: "Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically."

The acceptance of funding from prominent climate change skeptics, the scientists say, is unethical.

"Corporate polluters are embedding themselves in these spaces that communicate science to the public," said Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, in a statement.

"David Koch sits on the board of our nation’s largest and most respected natural history museums, while he bankrolls groups that deny climate science. There is a clear contradiction between the mission of these museums and the politics of their patron," he wrote.