An aerial view of the California Academy of Sciences in 2015
Photo: California Academy of Sciences

For decades, in an attempt to fight climate change misinformation, science communicators have focused almost exclusively on fear. And experts at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences (Cal Academy) are starting to worry all those doom-and-gloom stories of melting icebergs, rising sea levels, and dying polar bears are adding up to a public that has very nearly lost all hope.

That’s why this month, the Cal Academy—one of the largest science museums on the West Coast, with more than a million visitors per year— launched Planet Vision. A three-pronged program that will start online and as a physical exhibit, then spread to science museums around the country and eventually into people’s homes, businesses, and political institutions, its goal is to inspire people to shake off their fear of climate change and take meaningful action.

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“This is about being a bit of an antidote for how we framed environmental issues for too long,” Jon Foley, executive director of the museum, told Earther. “The environmental messages of fear, problems, and conflict work short-term. But long-term they’re hurting the cause dramatically.”

At this point, according to Foley, people have made up their minds about whether or not they believe climate change is real. He believes it’s time to stop attempting to convince the holdouts (about 14 percent of Americans don’t believe the climate is changing, according to the Yale Program on Climate Communication) and instead start rallying everyone else. Foley points to a November 2016 study out of Yale called “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” On one end of the spectrum are Americans “freaked out beyond belief” and on the other end are people who completely dismiss its existence entirely. “All the middle four groups of that continuum are persuadable….That’s like 70 percent of the country,” he said.

Looking at this data, and combining it with the fact that museums are the most trusted institutions in the country on all sides of the political spectrum, Foley and his team of climate and Earth scientists have decided they are in a position to change the message and remove fear from the conversation around environmental issues.

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Phase One of Planet Vision launched this month online as a blog and action guide for a national audience. The program will tackle what the Academy’s experts believe are the three biggest areas where people can reduce their consumption and live more sustainably: food, water, and energy. Within each area of the online program, Planet Vision presents actions that every individual person can take, many of which can not only help fight climate change, but help individuals reduce waste and save money. Within the museum itself, Planet Vision features an interactive exhibit, which allows attendees to “practice” altering their lifestyles and homes for greater sustainability (for instance, in part of the exhibit experts will teach visitors how to install water-saving shower heads). The exhibit will be on the museum floor for six months in a prototype format, where it will be optimized and upgraded over time.

For Phase Two, the team plans to build and install 100 replicas of the exhibit, which they’ll give away for free to museums around the country. In Phase Three, they will begin working with businesses and policymakers to help other stakeholders adopt the message of positivity and action. The Academy has already been quietly having conversations with museums, aquariums, business campuses, and even airports interested in installing the exhibit and taking part in the program.

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Solutions-oriented climate communication isn’t entirely new—it’s been gaining steam for at least five years. In 2013, Foley launched Ensia, a non-profit magazine published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. The Cal Academy also publishes a solutions-based environment magazine called bioGraphic. And Elsevier publishes a journal, Anthropocene, which publishes interdisciplinary research that focuses on solutions.

Exhibit wall at CalAcademy’s new Planet Vision interactive exhibit.
Photo: California Academy of Sciences

Nor does the movement always lead to ideal outcomes. Programs geared toward corporate sustainability, for instance, can lead to greenwashing, where companies say they are acting sustainably for the purposes of marketing but don’t always practice what they preach. A recent study out of Stanford found that, out of 449 companies, “only 15 percent of sustainable sourcing practices focus on health, energy, infrastructure, climate change, education, gender or poverty.”

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Foley says that greenwashing is always a concern. “But some corporations are doing good work, and we hope to work more with them. In an era where federal governments are frozen, we need new kinds of collaborations to move the needle,” he said.

Ultimately, the most important aspect of Planet Vision will be promoting the view that despair is an attitude of the past. “Right now we all have been told sustainability is going to have to suck. We’re going to have to take it on the chin and sacrifice. I just don’t believe that,” Foley said.

Erin Biba is a freelance journalist focused on how science and technology intersect with climate, the environment, and human health.

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