"Climate Change"

Is it the end of the world as we know it? Probably not. But if you think global warming won't affect your trifling little existence, take a look at this.

Ever flip the switch in your bathroom and wonder where the light from that incandescent bulb comes from? No, neither do we. In fact, the subject of green energy and eco-whatever usually has us flipping the off switch in our brain. The good folks behind the American Museum of Natural History’s “Climate Change: The Threat to Life and a New Energy Future” exhibition, opening Saturday 18, are determined to teach us a valuable lesson. We asked cocurator and Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer to break it down for us using small words and visual aids.

The issue:

Without heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane, the earth would be too cold to inhabit. But ever since the industrial revolution, humans have done a fine job of burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, increasing the population and consuming things in mass quantity—all of which have contributed to heightened levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Exhibit A: “Here’s the ugly face of the enemy—one ton of carbon,” says Oppenheimer. “It’s typical of the amount of carbon a small car puts out every year. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about burning fossil fuels.”
So what?
So what?!? No reduction in carbon emissions means continued global warming. Continued global warming means that the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will melt. “The warming in this century is enough to trigger the process irreversibly,” warns Oppenheimer. “Though less electricity use means less greenhouse gases put out at the source of the electricity—which in this country is a coal-burning power plant.” The lesson? Switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs, stat!

The issue:

The sea levels are rising and will continue to rise—and remember, whiz kid, water expands when you heat it.
Exhibit B: “This model shows the effect of a 20-foot sea level rise on Manhattan,” says Oppenheimer. “A considerable fraction of it is under water, including Greenwich Village.”
So what?
“With real estate being so valuable in Manhattan, they’d probably build seawalls to keep the ocean out,” says Oppenheimer. “It would be extremely expensive to do this.” Not to mention a little Alcatrazian.

The issue:

The polar bear is the poster child of climate change—and with good reason. Melting sea ice means fewer places where polar bears can hunt. As they are pushed out of their own environment, they will be forced inland to look for food. And if they prove hazardous to humans, they could be trapped or shot.
Exhibit C: “Polar bears have been spotted foraging in garbage in civilized areas,” says Oppenheimer. “They really don’t like to go into areas where there are people.”
So what?
“They’ll interbreed with brown bears,” says Oppenheimer. “What would happen is reverse evolution.” Do you want to see polar bears go extinct? We didn’t think so.

Have the last word!
After you’ve trawled through more than 60 interactive stations, dioramas and graphic presentations, pledge to go green by sticking a comment card to the wall.

READY TO GO? “Climate Change: The Threat to Life and a New Energy Future”: American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th St (212-769-5200, amnh.org). Sat 18–Aug 16. $24; seniors and students $18; children $14.