Museum In The News

Reprinted courtesy of ClimateWire -

Have a plan to reduce emissions? 'Earth Lab' lets you try it out
(Wednesday, September 21, 2011)
Lauren Morello, E&E reporter

Climate change has become a third rail in American politics, but just a few blocks from the Capitol, one museum is not afraid to touch the issue.

The new "Earth Lab" at the Marian Koshland Science Museum -- an arm of the National Academy of Sciences -- offers visitors a chance to step up to a virtual negotiating table and craft their own plan for reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

The $2 million exhibit has a solid scientific pedigree: It's based on the academy's recent "America's Climate Choices" reports, and it was developed with the help of a 13-member science advisory panel.

But that wonky core is wrapped in a sleek exterior that resembles an Apple store -- a "sophisticated aesthetic" designed to draw in the Koshland's target audience of young adults 18 to 29, said the museum's deputy director, Erika Shugart.

Large touch pad screens displaying bright icons cover the Earth Lab's walls. The screens are also embedded in the surface of the blond-wood Parsons table that dominates the space.
That's the "decision table," which invites visitors to swipe and tap through a series of screens to cut the country's carbon dioxide output to just 203 gigatons a year by 2050, or 50 percent below the 1990 level.

As users get closer to that goal, the screen slowly turns from red to green. If they succeed in hitting the museum's emissions target, visitors can email their results to themselves or a friend. They can also plug their plans into a series of global scenarios to gauge the effect on future temperature rise.

The museum ups the ante by projecting the results from each of the decision table's four touch-screen stations on a large wall screen -- so that, just like diplomats at a real negotiating table, Koshland Museum visitors can decide to compete or collaborate.

"It's an opportunity for people to think about how to lower greenhouse gases for the United States," Shugart said. "We worked with a decision scientist to create this scenario where people think about their values, then go in to try to lower greenhouse gases. People can decide, if we're trying to hit this target by 2050, what's important? Cost savings, land preservation, oil independence or air quality?"

Other exhibits show visitors how scientists study the climate. One display case contains a thick cross-section of a giant sequoia, marked to show annual growth rings from 1580 to 2000, and a life-sized plastic model of an ice core. Next to them sit a sample of fossilized coral and a handwritten federal weather log, dated 1882, on loan from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Choices, choices, and you get to make them

A large grid of photographs illustrates the effects of climate change, from receding Arctic sea ice to more frequent drought. A touch screen shows how those effects will change with each degree of warming and shows where they are occurring or will occur. Another pair of displays presents different choices for adapting to future climate change, from making buildings more energy efficient to increasing the amount of electricity produced by renewable sources like wind and solar.

Asked to show off his favorite part of the exhibit during a recent tour, Pennsylvania State University professor Richard Alley, head of the Earth Lab's science advisory panel, became sheepish. "It's not the coolest thing here," he said, walking over to a bright touch screen in a dark corner. "But it's really interesting."

A few taps later, Alley had called up an animated graph showing how individual nations' carbon dioxide output has changed over the past 30 years. As the scientist used his finger to slide forward in time, the little white balls that represented each country bobbed along, largely unchanged: the United States at the top, most other countries far below.

But when Alley got to the year 2000, something unexpected happened. The large white dot that represented China shot zoomed up in a blur -- a slick electronic shorthand for the economic boom that is rapidly refashioning how the Chinese live and work.

"Isn't that cool?" Alley said, chuckling.

The scientist said he hopes that such gee-whiz moments will help, in a small way, to inject a little objective information into what has become an increasingly contentious national debate about climate change.

"The science has gotten more solid, and the discussion has gotten more rancorous," Alley said. "So think [outreach] is more important than ever. ... We need to learn the messaging. The National Academy of Sciences have tried so hard to get it right and to be very true to the science. It does not tell you what to do. It is not Democratic CO2, it is not Republican CO2, it is CO2."