The Smithsonian Institution Announces an Official Climate Change Statement

The bold assessment acknowledges that the global climate is warming because of human activities

As humans continue to transform the planet at an increasingly rapid rate, the need to inform and encourage change has become ever more urgent. The situation is becoming critical for wild species and for the preservation of human civilization. Recognizing this urgency, the Smithsonian Institution has formulated its first official statement about the causes and impacts of climate change.

With special emphasis on the Smithsonian’s 160-year history and tradition of collection, research and global monitoring, the statement delivers a bold assessment: "Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities."

"The 500 Smithsonian scientists working around the world see the impact of a warming planet each day in the course of their diverse studies," reads the statement. "A sample of our investigations includes anthropologists learning from the Yupik people of Alaska, who see warming as a threat to their 4,000-year-old culture; marine biologists tracking the impacts of climate change on delicate corals in tropical waters; and coastal ecologists investigating the many ways climate change is affecting the Chesapeake Bay."

“What we realized at the Smithsonian is that many people think that climate change is just an environmental topic,” says John Kress, acting undersecretary of science at the Smithsonian. “It’s much more than that. Climate change will affect everything.”

Many scientists, including Smithsonian researchers, believe we have entered a new interval called the Anthropocene. Coined in the 1980s by Eugene F. Stoermer, a researcher in diatoms, but popularized by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000, the term is derived from the Greek words anthrop for man and cene for current or new. Unlike the Holocene, which began at the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago, the Anthropocene has no formal start date. But in adopting the term, the Smithsonian recently organized its initiative “Living in the Anthropocene” to “expand climate change outside of just science and take Smithsonian resources to look at what other scholars and professionals are doing in various areas with regard to climate change,” Kress says.

As part of this initiative, the Smithsonian is bringing together some of the nation’s top critical thinkers to offer their perspectives in a symposium on October 9 called “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security.” The symposium features Rachel Kyte, group vice president and special envoy for climate change at the World Bank; James J. Hack, the director of the National Center for Computational Science at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; George Luber, the associate director for climate change in the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Admiral Thad Allen, the executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and former commander of the U.S. Coast Guard; and Thomas L. Friedman, a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Times.

For economies to grow and prosper, especially in underdeveloped countries, the need to address climate change is crucial. Last year, the World Bank changed their business model and added a special envoy for climate change to reach their goal of eradicating poverty by 2030. “Climate change is already having an impact on our goals because of extreme weather events. If you’re a country that is vulnerable to weather events, than those events can wipe out decades worth of development in just a few minutes or hours. We’ve seen countries and regions lose anywhere from 2 to 200 percent of their GDP,” Kyte says. “In almost every aspect of our economy, climate change is beginning to bite down, and that means we have to help our climate adapt and build a resilience plan for an increasingly uncertain future.”

Admiral Allen, who was designated principal federal official for the U.S. government’s response and recovery operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and later served as the national incident coordinator for the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, agrees that there needs to be resilience, although he emphasizes a bottom-up concept. “I always tell people that the first responder in any natural disaster is you and the second first responder is your neighbor. The more you become resilient, the less demand you put on the services in the community and the more you can help each other to create a resilient community.”

The Smithsonian initiative will also examine the health effects that emerge from changing environments and climate, including deaths, disease and trauma.  “We have the direct effects of events like hurricanes, which have both immediate and long-lasting health consequences, but then we also have health effects that come with changing ecology. There are pathogens such as Lyme disease or dengue fever that are sensitive to weather, and their environment can expand or shift,” says Luber, who is also an epidemiologist.  

Understanding such complex systems requires computational models, which can make predictions and reveal current activities on both grand and small scales. “The better the computational foundations and facilities to help the scientists, the more we’re going to start making progress toward more formally evaluating where uncertainties lie in the process of developing models,” Hack says. Even small uncertainties in the data could have trillion-dollar impacts and undermine faith in the modeling community, he adds.

As the struggle to understand and cope with global change continues, a “unity of effort” is needed across all platforms to better understand our challenges and determine solutions. “I think the challenge is to understand the complexity of the world we live in and the interaction of technology, human beings and the natural environment and try and think of new ways to build in resiliency into not only the human side of the planet but also the natural side,” Admiral Allen says.

James J. Hack, Rachel Kyte, George Luber, Admiral Thad Allen and Thomas L. Friedman will speak at the Smithsonian Institution on October 9, 2014 at a one-day symposium entitled, “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security,” 9:15 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with a reception to follow in the Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. To get your ticket, RSVP to [email protected] by October 7.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.