One metric ton of coal is roughly human-size, maybe five feet (1.5 meters) tall and a few feet wide. Black as night, this enormous lump contains enough energy to power an average American home for two months—and release 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas implicated in climate change.
A model of such a brick of coal is buried within a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH): "Climate Change". Opening October 18 in New York City, the show will also travel to Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis as well as international destinations including Spain, Denmark and Abu Dhabi. Its goal: "to demystify for the public one of the most pressing and difficult issues of our time," says AMNH president Ellen Futter. This exhibit "explains what climate change is, what is known about it, what is not yet known, and what evidence there is to be hopeful."
Along the way, the display explores the Newcomen steam engine and its progeny of fossil fuel–fired machines that have both enabled modern life and contributed to climate change; ways to cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions in one's own life via interactive stations covering tree-planting, car travel and lightbulbs; the extreme weather that global warming may cause, exemplified by a 10-foot- (three-meter-) tall wall of rain accompanied by storm sounds; and the potential solutions that could provide energy without CO2, such as wind, nuclear, solar, carbon capture and storage, geothermal, and dams. "All hold promise and all should be pursued," Futter notes.
In fact, "the intelligence and ingenuity that got us into this mess," as evidenced by the electronic age, says Edmond Mathez, curator of Climate Change and Earth and Planetary Sciences at AMNH. "Those are the same characteristics that will get us out of it."
Visitors have an opportunity to make ingenious suggestions or just comment either via a blog or on note cards available at the exhibit. Some offerings: "biofuels are a hoax"; "hybrid Hummer"; "stop using disposable diapers".
Without action, the consequences are dire: a planet of unbalanced natural phenomena. If we do not act "we are destined to pass on to our children or grandchildren a world we would not want to live in," says co-curator Michael Oppenheimer, geoscientist at Princeton University.
As it stands, the exhibit itself requires plenty of the same fossil fuel–fired energy that is causing the problem, mitigated by energy-efficient light-emitting diodes where possible. But it may be that the infant's onesie in the gift shop that reads "Thanks! For All the Global Warming" bears the most appropriate message of all.