Climate change talk scarce at science institutions

Visitors to Pittsburgh science-education facilities can experience an earthquake, look down the gullet of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and wander through a distant rain forest. But learning about climate change - which scientists warn poses a serious global threat - may take a bit more imagination.

By Chris Potter - Associated Press - Saturday, November 8, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Visitors to Pittsburgh science-education facilities can experience an earthquake, look down the gullet of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and wander through a distant rain forest.

But learning about climate change - which scientists warn poses a serious global threat - may take a bit more imagination.

The Carnegie Science Center’s exhibits make no mention of climate change. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s 1983 “Polar World” exhibit says nothing about how ice is shifting beneath the feet of its Arctic denizens.

Even the city’s premier greenhouse, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, doesn’t specifically discuss the greenhouse effect, though it foregrounds sustainability issues.

It’s not that staffers doubt the threat.

“In the scientific community, there isn’t a lot of debate about climate change,” said Jason Brown, the Science Center’s director of science and education. Just last month, NASA announced the previous half-year period had been the hottest on record.

National Aviary exhibits do refer to climate change, as does the polar bear habitat at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. The Carnegie facilities address the topic in educational programs and its natural history museum briefly mentions climate change in an Everglades diorama and a gallery on human population impacts. And at Phipps, executive director Richard Piacentini noted, ventures like the green-friendly Center for Sustainable Landscapes are “focused on addressing the root causes” of climate change.

Still, museum professionals cite several obstacles to raising the issue on the exhibit floor. Assembling exhibits can take years, and climate science is complicated and controversial, thanks largely to conservative political opposition. “The politicization of the issue is one of the biggest challenges,” Mr. Brown said.

Museums must weigh objections from audiences and - some observers say - funders too. But Penn State University meteorology professor Michael Mann, a leading climate-change expert, said exhibits must address the issue: “They are perhaps the greatest source of informal education the public receives about science and nature.”

Lighting visitors’ fire

When the Pittsburgh Zoo opened its polar bear exhibit in 2006, it made bears “the poster child for climate change,” said Curator of Conservation Education Margie Marks. Melting polar ice threatens the bears’ survival, so the zoo incorporated global warming concerns in “Water’s Edge,” a facsimile Arctic outpost adjoining the habitat.

There, a poster display warns that “burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal sends . greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere.” It identifies “green” energy sources like solar and wind along with ethanol, natural gas and “clean coal technology.” A “1 Degree of Change” hand-out suggests ways to reduce carbon emissions, like turning off lights and using public transit.

The message of the “1 Degree” campaign, which includes a website and other outreach, is that “If we change our daily behavior by a couple degrees, that can have a big impact,” said Ms. Marks. “People want to do the right thing when they find out how easy it is.”

Museum professionals say encouraging action helps ward off despair about the problem, and science facilities often practice what they preach. The zoo, for one, features solar and wind power near its entrance.

But while Mann, of Penn State, agreed “individual actions are important,” he said large-scale solutions, like taxing carbon emissions, are needed to avert global disaster.

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Climate change talk scarce at science institutions
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