- 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.

Mann gave the zoo display “a solid B+”, but noted an ongoing debate over energy sources like ethanol, clean coal and natural gas. Because those are, or rely on, fossil fuels, he said, “Some of their solutions may not be solutions at all.”

Marks said that the zoo “felt we had to have a mixture” of energy sources.

“We’re in the coal belt,” she added, “so for us to think coal is going away is probably not going to happen.”

Chilling the debate?

In fact, the “1 Degree” campaign is sponsored by EQT, a Pittsburgh natural-gas company whose logo appears on the handout. An older version of the pamphlet urged visitors to support politicians who back renewable energy and “the reduction of CO2 emissions.” That recommendation is missing from the EQT-branded handout, though zoo spokesperson Tracy Gray said EQT “didn’t have anything to do with” the revamped handout.

But ties to energy companies can fuel criticism. “It’s wrong for museums that celebrate science and nature to have relationships with the fossil-fuel industry,” said Beka Economopoulos, a New York-based activist whose work challenges the way museums discuss climate issues.

“There’s a chill that happens, subconsciously, where you don’t want to critique the practices of donors,” Economopoulos said. And extracting fossil fuels causes “environmental devastation. So why are you providing them a clean image?”

Such ties aren’t uncommon. The Carnegie Science Center has a science-education partnership with Chevron, an important player in Pennsylvania’s natural-gas industry. A Chevron public affairs executive, Trip Oliver, was named to the Science Center’s board in June.

“Chevron is proud to partner with the Carnegie Science Center to inspire kids,” said Oliver in an email response to questions about corporate sponsorship.

“I can’t think of a person within these walls who would compromise their integrity for a sponsorship,” said the Science Center’s Brown.

The fact that Chevron is the largest corporate sponsor at California’s Chabot Space and Science Center “wasn’t a problem” when the center launched a climate-change exhibit, said its CEO, Alexander Zwissler.

Some institutions may feel constrained by funding concerns, Zwissler said. But “I wouldn’t be so quick to judge them. We live in the real world. We’re all using fossil fuels.”

Warming to the subject

The Science Center offers educational programming on climate change, including the school program “Captain Green’s Time Machine.” Program production coordinator Mike Hennessy said, “We’ve gone the live-demonstration route because it’s such a complex topic,” and benefits from give-and-take with experts.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, has hosted “Climate Change Playground” events with environmental groups, informing visitors about climate change and how to take action on it.

“It can take a long time for museum exhibits to change,” said assistant director of education Laurie Giarratani. “Going out into the community is faster.”

Becca Shreckengast, the museum’s director of exhibition experience, plans to update displays like “Polar World” with climate-change messages. The topic will also arise in new exhibits: An upcoming mollusk exhibit, for one, will note the museum’s research on how climate change affects snails.

The Carnegie had planned to address climate change in an exhibit called “Earth, Energy and the Environment.” The exhibit is currently shelved, partly due to changes in museum leadership. But Shreckengast said it will give viewers - including those who disbelieve climate science - a chance to provide input on the subject.

“Otherwise it just becomes a wall of noise,” she said.

But climate-change exhibits don’t always provoke anger.

Last year, the National Aviary unveiled “Canary’s Call,” an exhibit dedicated to environmental concerns. It features photographs of birds, environmental despoliation, and text describing climate change and other threats. “Birds and other wildlife pay the price for our consumption of goods and our reliance on chemicals and fossil fuels,” says one panel.

“These topics have a lot of emotion,” said Aviary’s education director Patricia O’Neill. But the exhibit informs visitors about actions they can take. “When you provide information in a preachy way, people walk away feeling as if they can’t act on it,” she said.

So far, she said, there’s been no outcry over the climate message. In fact, aviary staff worried more about how the public would respond to an exhibit photo of a cat carrying a dead bird.

“The issue of domestic cats,” O’Neill said, “is near and dear to a lot of people.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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