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Climate Change Action

By Fia Turczynewycz
min read

A Commitment by Zoos and Aquaria Across AZA

Imagine a cleaner world—clean air, clean oceans, clean soil, clean forests. What does it smell like? What does it feel like? What do you see? Imagine an electrified world—electric cars, electric heating, electric stoves—all powered by the sun. This world is quieter and clearer, with fewer machines, less smog, less power plants. This world is flourishing with flora and fauna, an abundance of greenspace. It is easier to get to work. Neighborhoods are more connected than ever. Our environment and our communities are thriving. This can be our future, as we work together, towards collective impact and action against our changing climate.

Is it a picture you’d like to be a part of? As Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities, we understand that as fossil fuels are burned for energy to power our buildings, our equipment, our classrooms, our vehicles, carbon dioxide gas is added to the atmosphere. This buildup acts like a thickening blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping in heat, raising our average global temperature and disrupting the climate. Not only are the animals and plants we work so hard to conserve and protect affected, but our guests and their families, our staff, and our children, are affected as well.

Our impact as an industry alters the climate and could reduce natural resources, but our industry impact can also reach millions of families, inspiring them to take action with us as we work to lessen our carbon emissions, reduce our footprint, and do everything we can to minimize our impact. Zoos and aquariums are building better buildings, investing in renewable energy, and teaching about climate change in our programs.

Reducing Our Own Footprint

As institutions with a large variety of animal and horticulture needs, tanks, pumps, chillers, kitchens, classrooms, and offices, our natural resource use can be intensive. Thankfully, we’re aware of it and doing whatever we can to reduce our own carbon footprints.

The Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., is home to approximately 320 animal species, and roughly 120 tanks that require precise water quality specifications and cleanliness. In addition to tanks, the Seattle Aquarium also has classrooms, other habitat space, and plenty of other needs that require a lot of energy use. To combat that high energy use, the Aquarium invested one million dollars in energy upgrades including mechanical equipment, insulation, lighting, and heating equipment. Choosing smarter systems, such as heat pumps versus gas furnaces, and really examining every aspect of how a building is run, helped bring down energy use and costs.

Zoos and aquariums are so unique, the challenge is how to plan and budget for the unknown. Jesse Phillips-Kress, facilities manager at the Aquarium, shares one of the challenges he currently faces when responding to our current changing climate.

“Our buildings can be looked at like a living system that needs to be able to respond to the changing environment. Resiliency needs to cover our mechanical systems, our human comfort, and our animal life support systems. The planning and budgeting and preparing for the unknown climate changes but also simultaneously reducing our own footprint is such a challenge. There is a natural tension between the two. Do I install a big system with more cooling potential to combat the hotter summers? Or do I reduce my use? How can we do both?”

A certified carbon neutral organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., is also making strides to reduce their carbon footprint. They’ve committed as an institution to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, net zero waste, and sustainably sourcing food for both animals and people. Claudia Pineda Tibbs, sustainability and operations manager at the Aquarium, shares how lucky they are that they have community choice aggregation (Monterey Bay Community Power), so they are able to source 100 percent solar and wind renewable, carbon free power. The Aquarium also has an annual greenhouse gas inventory so they can see where they can make improvements. Over 90 percent of their food is locally sourced and traceable, working with local farmers and purveyors. Sourcing local helps cut down on transportation costs, keeps the food fresher, and supports the local economy. 

Despite holding the title of ‘Greenest Zoo in America,’ the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio, knows there is always more to be done to reduce and reverse our effects on the planet. To continue breaking boundaries in the industry and serving as a model for the region, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has committed to become a net zero facility by 2025. Simply put, “net zero” refers to an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of/prevented from entering the atmosphere. To define the goal of becoming net zero, the team determined that the pillars of energy, water, and waste are the most applicable, achievable, and impactful on which to focus design and retrofit priorities.

Their global perspective and motivation for becoming a net zero facility is about reducing the collective heavy, institutional carbon footprint to zero and showing that, by strategically dedicating resources and skills, it can, and should, be done by other facilities. Renewable energy, rainwater catchment systems, green building, and sustainable farming are just a few ways they will reach their goals.

Education and Inspiring Our Public

While an institution's carbon footprint is largely based on the way it builds, maintains, and operates its facility structures, they have other major influences as well. Zoos and aquariums are visited more than any other sporting event or amusement park, and as largely trusted and respected conservation education facilities, are in the perfect position to influence, educate, and inspire millions of audiences. Our world class education programs, volunteer programs, animal encounters, and social media following reach millions of people. Why not take advantage of our listening audience to talk about climate change, and invite them to join us in taking action. The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) was founded in 2010, and has been training AZA-accredited facilities in how we communicate and translate climate and ocean science to broad audiences, focusing on empowering, positive, and collective solutions.

NNOCCI gives us the language based on social science, which is compelling for AZA facilities because it was based on research with the North American public with what people know and don't know. We want to make sure we are engaging everyone, so basing the messaging and framework off this knowledge has helped facilities use this more and more.

“This is the power of our network, of our shared voice and shared message. When a visitor goes to our different zoos and aquariums, ideally they’re hearing the same message (like the heat-trapping blanket metaphor) about climate change. It allows us to make a better informed visitor,” said Jerran Orwig, NNOCCI facilitator and educator at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

One of NNOCCI’s founders and current Network Manager, Hannah Pickard, shares that “In the last year, the climate crisis messaging has skyrocketed in public setting which on the one hand is exciting because it is in more discourse. But on the other hand, also results in a panic of we have limited time until we’re doomed. How does that motivate anyone to do anything? It is so overwhelming.”

NNOCCI uses hopeful messaging to picture a positive future, and what direction we need to take to get there. It gives people a pathway to a solution, to harness those feelings of “what can I do,” and connects to positive actions. All of this directly connects to the missions of zoos and aquariums across the country.

“At our core, we’re all educational, conservation driven institutions. This focus is our inspiration. We need to not only talk this talk, but walk it as well,” said Phillips-Kress. To learn more about NNOCCI and climate change interpretation, visit

Pacific Visions, the Aquarium of the Pacific’s newest wing, opened spring 2019 and is entirely dedicated to climate change. Pacific Visions uses art, technology, theater, and animal exhibits to encourage visitors to think about the daily choices they make relating to food, water, and energy—and connect it to what it means for the climate and our future.

"Climate change can feel like too big a problem, so it can help guests to focus on local climate change actions and solutions rather than focusing on saving the entire world. As our local actions build, global results can occur,” said Chris Corpus, AV production manager at the Aquarium.

Zoos and aquariums across our community are collectively working to improve our messages of hope, calls to action, and community solutions.

As the AZA community works to reduce our own impact and inspire guests to do the same, we will feel the immediate results of our actions and solutions. Lower energy bills, cleaner water, healthier systems for our animals, cleaner air, and increased habitats are bringing our visions of a thriving world to life.

Fia Turczynewycz is the sustainable communities advocate at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and AZA’s Green SAG communications manager.

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