PUBLIC OPINION:

A 9-foot giant with claws enters the climate debate

Hudson the polar bear is a star attraction at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, where visitors come to watch him romp and swim in the new "Great Bear Wilderness" exhibit.

But the bear's keepers, gravely concerned about climate change, have their eye on a different wilderness: the tangle of conflicting opinions about climate change among Americans. They see a captive audience in the roughly 180 million Americans who visit a zoo or aquarium each year.

A new national survey suggests that 82 percent of zoo visitors believe climate change is happening, compared with just 64 percent of the general public. But there's a twist. The survey also finds that visitors who are most concerned about climate change are the least likely to believe that individual actions will make a dent in the problem.

To Alejandro Grajal, a senior vice president with the Chicago Zoological Society, which runs the Brookfield Zoo, those numbers speak of missed opportunity.

He's spearheading a new $1.2 million effort to improve climate change education at U.S. zoos and aquariums. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, began last spring with a national survey of more than 3,000 visitors at 15 U.S. zoos and aquariums sprinkled throughout the country.

"We probably need to rethink our whole approach to climate change literacy," Grajal said. "In a sense, our approach to climate change has been, 'This is a huge global problem with huge global repercussions that is going to span decades -- so please recycle and change your light bulbs.'"

How many bears will it take to recycle light bulbs?

Grajal's consortium of nine zoos believes those visitors want more information about global solutions to climate change, and how individual and local actions can contribute to those solutions.

They also believe their institutions may be able to reach people in ways that scientists, politicians and teachers can't, by taking advantage of an emotional connection between zoo visitors and zoo animals.

"People don't make their daily decisions based on scientific facts," Grajal said. "There is an important emotional and psychological component to learning and decisionmaking, so we're trying to understand how those processes work in the particular case of zoo visitors."

That emotional connection is apparent to Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who is advising Grajal's network of zoos.

"I've learned much about animals that I never knew," he said when asked about his work on the project. "I've had an opportunity to see polar bears up close in the Arctic -- there is nothing like the experience of seeing a polar bear, eye to eye, in the wild."

For zoos, the trick to harnessing those emotions to enhance learning will be untangling the science of climate change from the political baggage around the issue.

"We've done some studies in zoos that show when you start talking about climate change, people are actually repelled by that," said Paul Boyle, senior vice president for conservation and education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "They are repelled by the perception that has been created that this is a political football."

Does a political issue belong in a zoo?

But it's not just zoo visitors who may be wary of talking about climate change. When the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium began planning a new polar bear exhibit in 2004, some staffers shied away from incorporating climate concerns into the new project, said Barbara Revard, the zoo's director of program planning.

"I clearly remember our very first team meeting," she said. "When it came to talking about what our interpretive goals and messages were, we said, 'It has to be about climate change.' And about half the staff in the room said, 'We can't do that. It's a political issue.'"

The Columbus Zoo eventually found a way to deal with those concerns. When its Polar Frontier exhibit opened last year, displays and programming highlighted the rapid pace of climate change in the Arctic -- and exhibit staff were given special training to handle any aggressive or hostile questions skeptical visitors might pose.

In the end, it was preparation they've never had to use. "We occasionally have someone comment, 'I don't believe in [climate change],' and that's OK," Revard said.

Eventually, Grajal and his partners hope to provide advice that any zoo or aquarium can use to improve the way it teaches visitors about climate change -- from the ways it will affect iconic species like the polar bear to everyday life for the people who come to gawk at the bears and other zoo denizens.

When zoos heat up, will people come?

The survey, conducted last spring, was the first step. It used a series of questions developed by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities for their ongoing "Six Americas" survey of U.S. attitudes about climate change.

That allows researchers with the zoo project -- formally known as the "Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network," or CLiZEN -- to compare zoo visitors' beliefs about climate change with those of the general public.

Grajal said his team, still crunching numbers, will release the full results from that survey in January. The next step will be trying out new climate change education strategies in the same zoos and aquariums that participated in the initial survey, and conducting a second round of questioning to gauge the effect of the new effort.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums hopes to use those data as it formulates new guidelines on communicating climate change for its member institutions, as part of its five-year climate change initiative.

In the end, the push to improve zoos' ability to communicate about climate change may not only benefit the animals they seek to protect, officials said.

They're also worried about the effect climate change will have on their bottom lines.

"We're an outdoor venue," said Revard, the Columbus Zoo official. "When we get to 83 degrees, we've found from visitor surveys and groundspeople that their experience changes. They start to get uncomfortable in the heat. They don't want to eat hot food."

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