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A Trip to the Zoo Can Get People Talking About Climate Change

New research finds an informal education program gives people the tools to discuss the problem intelligently.
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(Photo: Jeffery Wright/Flickr)

(Photo: Jeffery Wright/Flickr)

Climate change is a subject most of us don’t really want to think about, let alone discuss over dinner. While our fears of a decimated environment are clearly reflected in apocalyptic fiction, frank talk about our warming world is relatively rare.

If this reflects deep-seated denial, we’re all in trouble. But what if the issue is simpler? What if we avoid the subject because we don’t really understand it — and don’t want to sound like an idiot?

New research suggests that may be true for a lot of Americans. It also offers evidence that, when members of the public are given the vocabulary they need to grasp the gravity of the situation, they are more likely to engage in conversation about what needs to be done.

That’s the conclusion of Penn State University researchers, who tested the effects of an under-the-radar climate change education effort. They report its dual focus — providing an understandable explanation of the problem, and noting how individuals and communities can help — is potent enough to get people talking.

Writing in the Journal of Environmental Psychology,Nathaniel Geiger, Janet Swim, and John Fraser focus on an ambitious program by the National Network for Oceanographic and Climate Change Interpretation. The organization works with “informal educators at informal science learning centers such as aquariums, national parks, and zoos” to help them spread understandable information about climate change.

Participants “are taught a variety of communication techniques,” including research-tested metaphors and analogies “that help visitors understand explanatory chains of human activities that contribute to, or can mitigate, climate change.”

For example, when creating exhibits or presentations — or simply talking informally with visitors — staff members are encouraged to avoid the term “greenhouse effect” in favor “heat-trapping blanket.” That easy-to-grasp metaphor “is more effective at conveying the effects of heat-trapping gas on the earth’s temperature,” the researchers write.

They are also urged to describe the ocean as the heart of the planet’s “circulatory system” — a vivid, body-based way to convey the vital role oceans play in regulating weather patterns. Finally, they are encouraged to emphasize the importance of “community action and cooperation” to solve this global problem.

The study featured 1,066 American adults who had visited a zoo, aquarium, or national park in the previous year. Researchers noted whether or not participants had visited an institution participating in the climate change communication project.

Participants answered a series of questions on their climate change knowledge, as well as their perceived ability to talk about the topic with their friends, members of their community, and government representatives. Finally, they reported how often during the past year they had engaged in a conversation on the subject of climate change.

People who had visited participating zoos or parks subsequently discussed the topic more frequently than those who visited similar non-participating institutions. Their willingness to talk was driven by self-efficacy — that is, their perceived ability to intelligently discuss the subject — and, to a lesser extent, the belief that their efforts could make a difference.

The promising findings suggest parks and zoos can be effective tools to enlighten the public about a complex problem, and thus spark needed conversations. Your goal may be to see the cute koalas, but your takeaway may be a better grasp of a grim situation.