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A great deal of learning takes place outside of the standard curriculum. School-based education is often insufficient to address climate change; many schools do little to cover the topic, perhaps out of the desire to avoid political controversy. This leaves social media, mainstream news media, and informal learning environments to cover the gap. Although social media and mainstream news media can be politically polarized, science museums, zoos, and other informal learning environments draw a broad and diverse audience, and are generally trusted by people across the political spectrum. This makes them an important location for climate change education.
Informal learning environments are settings outside traditional educational institutions in which information is communicated. Environments such as zoos and nature centers, which provide information about animals, ecology, and the natural environment, have several attributes that are important to their role in climate change communication. One significant feature is that they are social contexts, in which social interaction is both expected and encouraged. If the people who are encountering the message talk to each other about it, they can develop a shared understanding of, and response to, the content. The social experiences provide an opportunity to affirm shared values for nature, and understandings of the potential impacts of climate change.
Another key characteristic of these environments is that they have at least a minimal entertainment function along with the education function. People are required to attend formal educational settings, at least within certain parameters, but informal settings are usually optional. That means that those who run the sites have to think about ways to encourage attendance, by providing an emotionally engaging experience. The personal experience of curiosity, awe, and connection to nature can be dramatic, as can be seen by observing visitors at a zoo exhibit. Such connections can provide a powerful basis for empathy, a precursor to concern about the impacts of climate change on animals and ecosystems.
Climate literacy requires “an understanding of your influence on climate and climate’s influence on you and society” (U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), 2009, p. 4). Such an understanding can be frightening if people feel helpless. In addition to providing information about climate change, informal learning environments can do more to overcome denial. Well-constructed exhibits can promote concern through interest and engagement. But they also need to avoid a message that is too pessimistic. Beyond this, informal learning centers should take advantage of their social context. The very experience of learning about climate change in an institutional setting can empower visitors, who can feel reassured that society acknowledges the issue, cares about it, and has suggestions for effective action.
After reviewing aspects of environmental learning and the ways in which it occurs in informal settings, this chapter will present some suggestions about how zoos and other science museums can more effectively capitalize on their strengths to communicate with the public about climate change.