Zoos and aquariums: Preparing for renewed interest in climate issues

Today, President Obama is expected to use his executive authority to enact an ambitious plan to reduce climate pollution by cutting emissions from coal power plants by as much as 20 percent. According to The New York Times, the plan will “set a national limit on carbon pollution from coal plants (and) allow each state to come up with its own plan to cut emissions based on a menu of options that include adding wind and solar power, energy-efficiency technology and creating or joining state cap-and-trade programs,” something which “would be the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change and could become one of the defining elements of Mr. Obama’s legacy.”In light of the attention that the anticipated announcement has generated, and will generate, many of our partners may be wondering what their aquarium, zoo or science museum can do to prepare, not only to be reactive, but – at the risk of using one of my least favorite words – “pro-active” in addressing the issue with visitors. With that in mind, the purpose of this blog is to recap some of the key lessons that have emerged from the public opinion research.  Here are our top five for your consideration.

    1. Remember that the research indicates that aquarium, zoo and science museum experiences can pique the public’s interest in conservation issues, with visitors often expressing higher concern than the public at large about issues such as climate change (Noting here, for example, the research by CliZen http://clizen.org). With the news coverage of the announcement, there is likely to be even more “top of mind” interest in climate change over the coming days.


    1. Most visitors not only expect and trust, but appreciate the information our institutions provide them about these issues, while noting that not all ‘information’ is created equal – see points 3 & 4!


    1. Visitors are likely to be less interested in information about the problem, and more interested in information about the solutions, especially suggestions as to the ways in which they can be help through their own actions (A great example is  “Text OCEAN to 67076 to find out how you can support wind energy and ocean conservation by purchasing a renewable energy credit”  as is currently being promoted in conjunction with World Oceans Day)


    1. Visitors are more likely to be inspired when the solution steps are connected back to helping the animals, which are their emotional connection to these issues and our accepted area of expertise (A note of caution that for many, if not most aquariums and zoos, attempting to discuss the ins and outs of climate science, let alone climate policy and climate politics, can backfire with visitors as those may not be seen as your areas of expertise)


  1. New research by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication suggests that it may be better to talk in terms of “global warming” rather than “climate change” while our own recent research here at The Ocean Project underscored that emphasizing ocean acidification may be even more powerful.


Hoping this helps, and please be sure to share your experiences back with us!


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