Capitalizing on science

Who's really sponsoring the California Academy of Sciences opening — PG&E or the public?
The California Academy of Science's
living roof

The new California Academy of Sciences, which opens to the public Sept. 27, combines creatively reimagined old standards such as the Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium with a strong new focus on climate change and imminent threats to the planet's biodiversity.

"That's why I call it a natural future museum instead of a natural history museum," Greg Farrington, the academy's executive director, told journalists on Sept. 18 at the start of a press tour of the new facility.

The facility was built with roughly equal amounts of public and private money. Yet when visitors show up for the opening weekend's festivities, they'll be told they have Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to thank for the museum's opening, which includes free admission on the first day.

The central role that PG&E bought for $1.5 million has included lots of signage at the museum, prominent mention in academy press releases, subtle plugs to journalists by museum staffers, and a spot on the five-person panel of academy leaders that addressed the assembled media.

The private utility company's high-profile opportunity to be associated with science, progress, and environmental concern comes as PG&E is spending many millions of dollars to defeat Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act, and after decades of regularly lobbying against higher environmental standards for utilities.

"I think it's a perfect example of PG&E greenwashing its image and trying to associate itself with environmentally friendly policies," Aliza Wasserman of the activist group Green Guerillas Against Greenwashing told the Guardian. "PG&E is the very institution that can implement the technology we know we need to deal with this environmental crisis, and they haven't been doing so."

Ironically, while regular PG&E mailers decry local government's supposed untrustworthiness and warn against granting the city a "blank check" to issue revenue bonds to pursue public power projects, San Francisco taxpayers and government were the major sponsors of the museum's rebirth.

In addition to $120 million in revenue from SF-voter-approved general obligation bonds (paid back by all city taxpayers, unlike revenue bonds, which are repaid through an identified revenue source), the Academy of Sciences got $30 million in state and federal grants and receives $4.8 million from the city's General Fund each year.

"The hypocrisy," Wasserman said, "is striking."


From the cutting-edge living roof through the steamy simulated rainforest and down to the rippling walls of the basement aquarium area, this is a truly stunning facility that has earned its many accolades. Yet PG&E's involvement seems to undercut the academy's new focus on climate change, which pervades many of the exhibits.

"Altered State: Climate Change in California" is an exhibit that takes up much of the museum's main floor, including many eye-opening, interactive displays and poignantly featuring the bones of both an endangered blue whale and the extinct Tyrannosaurus rex to drive home the alarming call to action.

"In California, our climate, our way of life, and our economy will all be affected by climate change," Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs, told journalists during the tour, adding, "The T.