As we begin 2021 and face many changes ahead, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities have a unique opportunity to seize momentum to renew and reinvigorate our focus on engaging visitors to address the intersectional crisis of our lifetime—climate change.
In 2013, AZA took the bold step to publish a position statement addressing this crisis. The statement acknowledged the human role in climate change and the potential for AZA members to “play an important role in inspiring people to take personal and civic action that will help decrease atmospheric CO2 concentrations to protect humankind’s wildlife heritage.”
Climate change threats, including documented increases in atmospheric and ocean temperatures, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and increasingly severe weather events, are impacting the planet, people, and wildlife now. Many AZA facilities have been successfully communicating the threats posed by anthropogenic climate change for over a decade through exhibits, educational programming, community partnerships, sustainability initiatives, and field conservation.
Exhibits such as Feel the Heat, which debuted in 2008 at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., to the more recent opening of Rocky Coast Polar Bears at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, Calif., use interpretation to inform visitors of the science of a changing climate while also engaging them in meaningful conversations and providing concrete actions to take in their own homes and communities.
The National Network on Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) has trained hundreds of AZA educators and communication professionals in evidence-based techniques to inspire millions of visitors to have productive conversations and identify collective solutions to address climate change.
Communities Advancing Science Literacy (CASL), funded by a National Science Foundation grant and led by the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., fostered partnerships with community groups, including social justice, environmental, and arts organizations. Together, they considered how their work is impacted by climate change and how their collaboration can empower the community to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Each network facilitated conversations on what the community hopes for itself, and went on to co-create programs with community connectivity and resilience at its core.
We are now keenly aware of climate change's impacts on both wildlife and people. Mitigating the impacts of climate change is more than species conservation; it is an issue of social and environmental justice. We are seeing globally that communities contributing the least to climate change and those with the least access to adaptation and mitigation resources are often disproportionately impacted by climate change. Solutions to climate change must engage, resource, and support these communities as well as mitigate impact on species and habitat if we are to truly fulfill our commitment to diversity, equity, access, and inclusion.
Climate change is a complex issue requiring broad participation to effect positive change. As we consider how to inspire and support audiences in taking action, leveraging partnerships is more important than ever. Late last year, AZA and the Conservation Education Committee (CEC) began a collaboration with Fund for Teachers, a national nonprofit that provides fellowships to outstanding teachers to support their professional growth in order to support student success and strengthen their schools and communities.
On 10 April, AZA and Fund for Teachers will co-host an inaugural virtual summit for teachers and students with a focus on understanding and taking action on climate change issues. More than 20 AZA facilities alongside federal agency and non-profit partners will facilitate sessions during the program that share our work and resources available to students and teachers. Attendees will be challenged to engage in authentic problem solving after the summit and create a plan of action.
Another recently launched strategic collaboration, The Short Film Project, is a partnership of Aquarium of the Pacific, AZA, NNOCCI, and filmmaker Chris Corpus. Capitalizing on AZA facilities’ unique ability to tell compelling stories, more than 100 individuals from 19 AZA members will participate as teams to create 1-3 minute films that tell the stories of animals and ecosystems impacted by our planet’s changing climate. Teams will receive interpretative training and filmmaking advice as part of the project.
As we navigate non-stop change in the year ahead, CEC is committed to elevating climate change education to the forefront of our priorities and moving the needle in our communities and beyond. Now is the time to lean in to this challenge, with audiences more aware than ever of the interconnectedness of the health of wildlife, people, and the planet. Let us all continue to work together to be global leaders in species conservation by advancing solutions to climate change that allow humans and wildlife to thrive together.
Debbi Stone is the Conservation Education Committee Chair and Vice President of Learning at The Florida Aquarium.
Windy Arey Kent is the Conservation Education Committee Vice Chair and the Education Curator at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.