Changing the climate change conversation

What cultural organizations can do to educate the public

DATA FROM THE Yale Project on Climate Communication reveals the surprising fact that 70 percent of Americans understand that climate change is occurring, but 64 percent shy away from discussing it. They find the topic too daunting, too polarizing, or perhaps best left to scientists. However, climate change is not just the purview of scientists, academics, and city planning agencies. It’s about our shared values and our shared responsibility for the future of our city and our planet. 

Beyond sparking concerns about the environment and future generations, climate change affects every aspect of our lives, including people, places, and things we care most about. As carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, creating a “heat trapping blanket” that is warming the planet, we are increasingly affected by rising sea levels, severe weather events, and health impacts related to extreme heat. To mitigate these impacts, we need to build public will to support the new policies, technology, and investments that are going to be necessary to survive and thrive into the future. 

The recent Climate Strike is just the momentum we need. With a record 7.6 million people taking to the streets and demanding climate action, it was the biggest climate mobilization in history. Teen activist Greta Thunberg’s bold “how dare you” speechat the United Nations not only made headlines but got people talking about climate change as an empowering call-to-action. 

No sector is better positioned to bridge the gap between what we know and what we care about than arts and culture. The arts have the power to open both our hearts and minds, motivating us to act in ways that science alone cannot. For generations, nature has influenced and inspired artists in painting, drawing, and sculpture. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Art challenges us to use different neural pathways, sparking intuitive connections and imagination. It can facilitate more accessible conversations and create “watercooler moments” that introduce the topic into the mainstream and popular culture. 

Here in Boston, our coastal location places us on the front lines of the climate challenge. Our theatres, libraries, ballparks, historic houses, greenways, zoos, and museums—highly credible and trusted sources of information that engage with millions of visitors every year—can help provoke and shape the conversation around climate change. Many museums are already and increasingly focusing on environmental and sustainability themes in exhibits and programs. After all, cultural institutions are also civic institutions. We not only have a responsibility to “walk the talk” on climate change, but also to use our spaces for convening, learning, and encouraging civic discourse. We need to talk about this issue on many fronts to build the political will for changes ahead. 

At the New England Aquarium, we have the “ClimaTeens” program, a nine-month leadership training program that brings 40 high school teens together to learn about climate change, how to communicate about it, and how to take the lead on the issue in their schools and communities. We also lend our expertise in climate change communication to environmental justice communities that will bear the brunt of climate change and sea level rise. With funding through National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we are piloting this work with community organizations in East Boston including the HarborkeepersEastie Farm, and ZUMIX, and in nearby municipalities, including Chelsea, Lynn, and Hull. 

The time to act is now, and we must act together. It will be a challenge, but we have faced challenges before—from the Boston Harbor cleanup to the creation of the Greenway—and succeeded through our innovation and leadership. 

We encourage everyone to join the city’s climate outreach efforts. The Boston Green Ribbon Commission convenes business, civic, and cultural leaders to support implementation of Mayor Walsh’s Climate Action Plan, which was recently updated. Greenovate Boston invites residents to get engaged on the neighborhood level. Now the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture has joined in, by urging cultural institutions to use our powers to help make Boston a climate-aware and climate-prepared place to live, work, and visit.   

Meet the Author
Let’s pick up where science leaves off, speak with purpose, and ensure that our institutions and our staff are well prepared to serve as climate activists, educators, and ambassadors to effectively engage the many visitors who come through our doors. We can work together to recruit the next generation of environmental leaders and train enough voices to shift the conversation about climate change to be more positive, civic-minded, and focused on solutions. 

Billy Spitzer is the vice president of learning and community at the New England Aquarium. He serves as a member of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission’s Cultural Institutions Working Group.