Monday, August 12, 2013

Overheard: Climate Change Discussion at a History Museum

Girl visitor exiting log house and cooking demonstration at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum: "I wouldn't have wanted to live then: no air-conditioning".

Slightly older male visitor with her: "they didn't need air-conditioning back then; there wasn't as much asphalt heating-up everything". 

Just the week before I had had a conversation with a conservation client about focus group on environmental literacy among its members. The responses showed widespread awareness of the connections among air, food, water and the health of the environment, but no mention of climate change or, when queried, understanding of the relevance of climate change to environmental health. I had hoped in my heart of hearts that climate change had reached awareness levels, but I guess I wasn't surprised to hear this report. 

So the comment about asphalt and air-conditioning struck me. Why did this historic site visitor connect to climate change and the science/nature group did not?  This is too small a sample for conclusions, but it does encourage me to think about how historic sites - demonstrating change over time (though not with this mythology behind them) - can make a great difference in communicating climate change.

One of the challenges of communicating climate change is that demonstrated change, and demonstrated impact create the strongest, most defined, responses, but climate change is such a large and complex issue, that it can be difficult to demonstrate without using distant imagery: comparative photographs of melting polar ice, or decades of history of change in carbon levels or frequency of storms (see link at end of blog). Our visitors probably haven't felt that change; they see it and consider it, but don't feel it. 

When the situation relates directly to the individual, it becomes more real.  So, in these two examples, those being directly affected by heat and comfort are drawing conclusions, while those thinking about the environment as a whole, and its effects on larger scale, have missed it entirely.

With our credibility as some of the most trusted sites for information, museums, zoos, gardens, sites, and aquariums can communicate climate change in meaningful ways, but perhaps the history museums and historic sites have the best chance of creating change that leads to action.
  • If your site has planting and weather records from 100 years ago, and can compare them to current weather and planting reports, you can demonstrate direct impact that a visitor can recognize and feel.
  • If you interpret architectural or community-building history at the waterfront, you can discuss how weather-incidents and potential for sea-level rise might affect community and home location choices today.
  • Do you have collections with photographs, paintings, or etchings for comparing to today's landscapes? Are they of nearby places (more accessible than Alaska) that more visitors are likely to see and feel personally?
Climate change and environmental sustainability issues aren't just for science and nature sites. These are global issues and we all have a role in creating change.

Note:  The 2005 article by Anthony Leiserowitz  on risk perception and communicating climate change for Yale University is a good read and is something I use in my work.


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