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Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo Reports on Climate Change Literacy Initiative

We were warned! Sixty-three years ago, the National Academy of Sciences published Planet Earth: Mystery with 100,000 Clues.  The pioneering publication in the field of science education indicated that industrial societies were “pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a great rate.” The brochure warned that this continued pollution of the atmosphere “would have a...

We were warned! Sixty-three years ago, the National Academy of Sciences published Planet Earth: Mystery with 100,000 Clues.  The pioneering publication in the field of science education indicated that industrial societies were “pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a great rate.” The brochure warned that this continued pollution of the atmosphere “would have a marked warming effect on Earth’s climate” that could “cause significant melting of the great ice caps and raise sea levels in time.”

Many would say that we had it coming. And we are learning that a great many say that it — climate change and its effects on the environment and wildlife–is here.

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According to a national survey produced by the Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo)-led Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network (CLIZEN), 82 percent of visitors to Association of Zoo and Aquarium (AZA) accredited zoos believe climate change is happening.  This is in contrast to 64% of Americans who responded to the same question posed in a national survey produced by Yale and George Mason Universities (Climate Change Communication Project).  The CLIZEN survey results are based on responses from more than 3,000 zoological park and aquarium visitors to 15 AZA member institutions around the nation.

This zoo visitor perception and other findings will contribute to the first-of-its-kind science education program–a CLIZEN-sponsored project in climate change literacy intended to reach more than 20 million zoo visitors a year.  This consortium of zoos and aquariums will help visitors understand climate issues and seek the means to address climate change.

“The majority of our visitors are concerned about climate change, and we have a responsibility to educate them about how they can help make a difference in their everyday lives. By connecting them with the animals that they see at zoos and aquariums, we can give visitors a better understanding of climate change,” said Alejandro Grajal, Ph.D., senior vice president of conservation and education for CZS.

The survey not only reveals an apparent climate change literacy among zoo and aquarium patrons, but that captive wildlife facilities are a trusted resource for disseminating scientific information about climate issues, ranking second only to scientists. “What we are finding in our analysis of this rich survey data—coupled with existing research—is that zoos and aquariums, scientists, and environmental organizations are the most trusted sources for information about climate change. That’s in contrast to less public confidence in government agencies, family and friends, and mainstream news media,” said Grajal.

These preliminary findings from the survey precede the publication of a much more detailed report to be made public in early 2012. Besides the Brookfield Zoo visitors, patrons from the following CLIZEN member institutions were surveyed: Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco, California; Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, Ohio; Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, Saint Paul, Minnesota; Indianapolis Zoo, Indiana; John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago; Monterrey Bay Aquarium, California; National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland; New England Aquarium, Boston; Oregon Zoo, Portland.; Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Pennsylvania; Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, Rhode Island; Louisville Zoo, Kentucky; Toledo Zoo, Ohio; and Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.  Since the survey, three more institutions—Denver Zoo, Colorado; St. Louis Zoo, Missouri; and River Banks Zoo, Columbia, South Carolina—have committed to participating in the project.

The 2012 findings are expected to provide an unprecedented insight into how zoo and aquarium visitors view climate change, conservation, and humans’ influence on both.  The findings will also help shape the role that zoos and aquariums play in science education to improve climate change literacy.

“Through climate change literacy, we hope to engage visitors to put their passion and interest in protecting animals and our planet into action,” said Stuart D. Strahl, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society.

The survey is part of a $1 million planning grant that CZS received from the National Science Foundation Program on Climate Change Education.

Dr. Alejandro Grajal is leading the distinguished team of principal investigators who are developing the national initiative. He is joined by principal investigators Susan R. Goldman, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology and education and codirector of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Michael E. Mann, Ph.D., professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

The partnership is joined by experts in conservation psychology, Polar Bears International, and an external advisory board that includes the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Please read my earlier post on the CLIZEN initiative.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: