Greenhouse Earth

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Ecology

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Wendy Pollock

Published on April 23, 2007, Modified on June 19, 2014

  • Description and goals

    The exhibition looked at the science behind global climate change – —how people are changing the atmosphere, what effects these changes may have on climate and on people, and what might be done to mitigate it.
    Major subthemes/areas:
    Greenhouse Earth— – about the natural greenhouse effect
    Cold Hard Facts/The Future Is Cloudy— – tools of science used to study climate, ancient and modern
    Crowded Planet— – changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from fossil fuel use, and projections for the future
    Heat Wave – —about the carbon cycle, and projected impact of atmospheric change, including sea level rise
    What Makes Weather— – ocean currents that affect weather, and relation between weather and climate
    Into the Greenhouse— – demonstration area and theater
    Changes Where You Live— – actions, at level of individual and public policy, that can make a difference

    The exhibition included an award-winning film called “Uncertainties,” about climate research; and a one-woman play about the devastating effects of a very small change in average temperature (based on the 19th-century “year without a summer,” caused by ash released into the atmosphere by a volcanic eruption).

    In 1998, the exhibition was sold to the Rochester Museum, Rochester, New York.

  • Development process and challenges

    Greenhouse Earth grew out of intense concern (both public and personal) about climate change during the extremely hot summer of 1988. Sheila Grinell and I had worked together at ASTC, and she was then an independent consultant. Together with Bill Booth, then head of exhibits at the Franklin Institute and later of COSI Toledo, we submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to develop and travel an exhibition that would “offer a balanced, non-threatening perspective on global climate change: what’s the evidence? how do scientists interpret it? what tools do we have for forecasting future climate? and what can we do about it?”

    We assembled an outstanding group of scientific advisors, who worked closely with the team throughout development of the exhibition. One of them, Kathleen Crane, then of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, attended many planning meetings and prepared written background papers on the key science.

    Minda Borun directed visitor studies to probe understandings and confusions about climate change, building on published research about popular conceptions related to climate change. One common confusion, for example, was about the “ozone hole”: people often thought of it (and perhaps still do) as the way extra heat got into Earth’s lower atmosphere and a contributor to global warming. We also consulted with psychologists who were studying decision-making and risk assessment. This helped us think about how people understand and respond to what they hear about environmental issues, and how they make decisions that have environmental consequences.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    Three lessons stand out:
    1. Always try things out, especially if the component is expensive.
    The plexiglas atmosphere that trapped heat around a globe had a hole so visitors could put their hands through and feel the “greenhouse effect.” What we didn’t anticipate was that this hole would increase confusion around the then-famous hole in the ozone layer. Testing this before investing in a major component might have helped us avoid this problem.
    2. Don’t fake it.
    We tried to make a spectrogram function on the floor, but when we ran into problems, we decided to simulate a reading. During a critique session we ran shortly after opening, George Tressel, then of the National Science Foundation, called us on this.
    3. Visitors want to record their opinions.
    In an area about public policy and uncertainty, we provided a 3-D plex graph and asked: In spite of uncertainties about the science, should we take action now to slow the production of greenhouse gases? We seeded it with coins, but people stuffed bills into the “yes” side. Host museums used it for environmental education programs.

  • Exhibition Opened: February 1992

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $500,000 to $1,000,000 (US)

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI-9050236

  • Other funding source(s): U.S. Department of Energy, George Gund Foundation, Cray Research Foundation, and others

Latest Comments (1)

Communicating climate risks

by Wendy Pollock - March 30, 2011

Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon U, one of the advisors for Greenhouse Earth, is coauthor of an excellent new article about the value of social and decision sciences for those communicating with the public about climate change. “Climate scientists bear a heavy burden: potentially, the fate of the world lies partly in their hands….One impulsive response to a seemingly recalcitrant public is a big advertising campaign. However, unless founded on sound social and decision science principles and accompanied by rigorous empirical evaluation, such efforts have little chance of sustained success.”

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