Meet the Smithsonian Director Bringing a Deep Time Perspective to the International Climate Discussion

Kirk Johnson highlights the vital climate context museum collections provide at international COP conferences

A man wearing a white hard hat, neon vest, dark gray pants and yellow gloves sits in a pit of dark rock. Just below his knees is a boulder with a piece of lighter gray fossil sticking out of the top.
Paleontologist and museum director Kirk Johnson excavates a mastodon jawbone in Snowmass Village, Colorado. Kirk Johnson, NMNH

As the person in charge of the world’s largest natural history museum, Sant Director Kirk Johnson is well-versed on subjects running the gamut of nature. Look no further than his office at the National Museum of Natural History, where display cases brim with everything from brilliant butterfly and mineral specimens to the 8-foot-long tusk of a narwhal.

As a scientist, Johnson is a paleontologist who specializes in understanding the ancient past. He has described new species of fossil plants, helped decode the demise of the dinosaurs and led an expedition that exhumed the bones of more than fifty ice age mastodons in Colorado. All this research has given Johnson a prehistoric perspective on global change that is often lacking in current climate discussions.

Which is concerning, because the effect of the emissions humans release into the atmosphere today will be felt for thousands of years. “We're used to having short term consequences, like if a building's on fire, you put it out,” he said. “But carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like having that building burning for 10,000 years.”

Director Kirk Johnson in front of the Nation’s T. rex skeleton in the museum’s Deep Time fossil hall, an exhibition that explores the lasting legacy of climate change on our planet. Kirk Johnson, NMNH
In November, Johnson and other Smithsonian officials attended COP 27, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Smithsonian Voices caught up with Johnson after the conference to learn more about why the Smithsonian is participating, what climate lessons we can glean from deep time and why museum collections are essential for making sense of environmental change.

Was participating in international climate conferences something you envisioned when you were rising up the scientific ranks?

You hear about these conferences, and you're curious about what goes on. In 2009, I went to the COP in Copenhagen but I really didn't have a great grasp of what was happening. These are really complex meetings. There's 35,000 people there and everybody is rushing around and bumping into each other. That first time, I was definitely a bit like Bambi in the headlights, taking it all in.

Why is it important for the Smithsonian to participate in these global events?

We wanted to attend COP 27 because the conference’s focus on climate change and biodiversity loss aligns with several important initiatives at the museum and the Smithsonian at large. Many of the meetings revolved around finding nature-based solutions to climate change by preserving habitats like rainforests, reefs and mangroves, which aligns with the research being done at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution.

We also thought we should be a voice there because of the perspective we can offer as a large museum. It became clear to me that not many people there were in the business of communicating climate change to the public. And not many organizations actually had scientific collections. Those are two unique assets that the museum brought, and can continue to bring to global conversations like COP 27. This week the Smithsonian is also represented at COP 15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, another global conference, this one focused specifically on developing a new Global Biodiversity Framework. This is an area where our scientific collections and our deep knowledge of species and biodiversity can play an important role.

As a paleobotanist, Johnson’s research focuses on fossil plants and what they tell us about ancient climates. In 2014, he pried open this fossil palm frond from an outcrop on an Alaskan beach. Ray Troll

You mentioned the importance of communicating climate change to the public. Have you gleaned any insights about how to effectively distill climate science for a general audience?

Everybody's talking about climate, but you often have people being swayed by a good story rather than a factual observation. Climate is tougher to conceptualize than other disasters. If a tornado comes through and destroys your house, it's pretty clear what happened. But carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is invisible. You never see it.

For me, it's all about taking complicated chemistry and making it simple and understandable. What does it mean when people say, ‘if we do this, it's like taking 10,000 cars off the road?’ It's too vast and too abstract.

When you burn one gallon of gasoline, you create around 18 pounds of carbon dioxide. So, instead of talking about taking 10,000 cars off the road, it makes more sense to me to personalize it: every time you use a gallon of gas, you put 18 pounds of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This makes it much easier to think about — if your car gets 20 miles per gallon, you're putting almost a pound of CO2 in the air for every mile you drive. When you can do that simple math, the idea of your carbon footprint becomes easier to comprehend.

As a paleontologist, is your perspective on the current climate crisis different from other researchers at these conferences?

Absolutely — if you talk to climate scientists about deep time, they mostly think you're talking about the ice ages. But that wasn't very long ago in Earth’s history. Based on current climate warming, it makes more sense to look much deeper in time and look for information in the fossil record from when the Earth was much warmer. To do that you have to go back tens of millions of years to times like the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum or the mid-Cretaceous period.

Sixty million years ago, the climate was much warmer than it is today. The discovery of fossilized, warm-climate plants, like this palm, in Alaska and other frigid regions reveal that dense, wet forests once covered much of North America. Lucia RM Martino, James Di Loreto and Fred Cochard, NMNH

As a geologist and paleontologist, I have a time-based understanding of the carbon cycle. Most people are familiar with the fast carbon cycle where carbon moves through plants, animals, soils, the ocean and the atmosphere on a timescale of decades . But there's also a slow carbon cycle, where carbon moves through coal, limestone, oil, gas, plate tectonics, volcanoes, and rock weathering on a timescale of millions of years.

The problem is that we're taking coal, oil, and gas from the slow carbon cycle and injecting it into the fast carbon cycle. That's why we are seeing an atmosphere with increasing carbon dioxide and a warming climate.

What were your takeaways from COP 27? Are there issues you would like to see more progress on at future conferences?

My sense is that people felt like we didn't achieve as much as we hoped. Our collective goal is to keep the Earth’s atmosphere from warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the industrial age. But carbon emission curves are still going up so it’s becoming clear that it is going to be hard not to exceed that goal.

At the conference, people were talking about mitigation, which is preventing emissions, and adaptation, which is coping with the effects of climate change. It was my sense that more people were talking about adaptation and resilience. That is certainly important but in my mind, it’s a rearguard action. I think that it is really important to continue the focus on reducing carbon emissions.

As a science communicator, Johnson has helped publicize the deep time perspective on climate change by writing popular books and hosting television programs. David Dugan

On a more optimistic note, President Biden attended, and the United States has now committed significant resources toward climate action. It put the United States back in the game because we were on the sidelines after we pulled out of the Paris accord. And the United States came in strong with NOAA, NASA, and other top scientific organizations attending. Which is why it was so important for the Smithsonian to be there.

What role do you envision museums playing to combat climate change in the future?

We’re in a time of immense change and museum collections are the record of what's happening. Humans are very good at adjusting to incremental change. If you change things a little bit every day, people just adjust to it and miss the fact that the cumulative change is quite dramatic. Collections allow us to see the patterns of the past and they document the fact that we have been living in a world of shifting baselines for the last few hundred years.

And that's why I've been trying to bring the world's museums together. Working with a team of natural history museum directors, we have contacted the 110 largest museums in the world and created a method to measure their holdings as a first step to creating a global natural collection. In theory, the global collection is the physical manifestation of what humans know about the natural world and our place in it.

This is important because we document species and ecosystems that are now extinct. If we didn't have the specimens in museums, we wouldn't be able to access our recent past. For example, we have Tasmanian tigers in this building. They are extinct in the wild, but their genetic code remains accessible because of the museum.

The work of a museum is never done and we need to keep collecting and recording the changing world. If we are successful, people in 2100 will be able to look back to 2022 and see that natural museums played a significant role in understanding and preserving the natural world in a time of great change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meet a SI-entist: The Smithsonian is so much more than its world-renowned exhibits and artifacts. It is a hub of scientific exploration for hundreds of researchers from around the world. Once a month, we’ll introduce you to a Smithsonian Institution scientist (or SI-entist) and the fascinating work they do behind the scenes at the National Museum of Natural History.

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