Climate Alliance group photo from 2019

Photo: Shervin Hess / Oregon Zoo

Q&A: Polar Bears International’s Climate Alliance

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



29 Sep 2022

In 2009, Polar Bears International created the Climate Alliance Program to help our zoo and aquarium partners communicate effectively about climate change and work within their communities to inspire real-world solutions. 

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we relaunched the program this year, extending invitations to keepers and animal care staff from 16 zoos and aquariums in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

We chatted with Marissa Krouse, our director of conservation programs, about the history of the program, the social science behind it, and the impact it has had over the years.

Q: The class of 2022 recently completed eight months of online learning and action planning and will soon be headed to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to meet each other in person and see polar bears in the wild. Why is the course designed this way?

Zoo staff members are busy people, and our online modules allow them to work at their own pace. The materials provide them with an in-depth understanding of polar bears, sea ice, and climate change—including how to talk about what they’ve learned with the public, based on tested language and metaphors. 

We get great feedback on the messaging. It explains climate science in a clear, inclusive way that provides hope and engages visitors in solutions—which is no small accomplishment in today’s polarized world!

Participants cap off what they’ve learned with a trip to the tundra to see wild polar bears and experience the ecosystem first-hand. During their time in Churchill, they form bonds with each other, meet scientists and Indigenous community members, and learn about efforts to coexist with the bears. The chance to see polar bears in their natural habitat has a huge impact on everyone involved—giving them stories to share that resonate with the public in a deeply personal way. 

Q: Why did Polar Bears International create a climate-focused program for zoos and aquariums?

Early on, we realized that one of the best ways of helping the public understand the impacts of climate change was to work with our zoo and aquarium partners. Studies have shown that zoos are trusted messengers on climate change. In addition, more people in North America pass through zoo turnstiles than all sporting events combined. 

Given the cachet that keepers and other zoo staff members have—and their ability to reach a wide audience—we decided to create a program that would provide them with additional tools to communicate effectively on climate change and help move the dial. Around the time that we created the Climate Alliance, we also established our Arctic Ambassador Center (AAC) network, which has grown to include 50 zoos and aquariums in the U.S., Canada, and Europe that share our commitment to polar bear education and conservation. 

The zoos and aquariums in our AAC network are powerful advocates for climate action and conservation protections. They also conduct and support polar bear research that helps polar bears in the wild, and we couldn’t be more grateful for their support and involvement.

The 2022 Climate Alliance Cohort

The 2022 Climate Alliance Cohort.

Q: You attended the pilot program of what is now called Climate Alliance in 2009, back when you were a polar bear keeper at the North Carolina Zoo. Can you tell us about the experience and the impact it had?

A: I was chosen for the training by my local AAZK chapter because I won an essay contest about why I wanted to participate. It was a life-changing experience for me—I’ll never forget looking my first wild polar bear in the eye. I remember feeling so emotional, thinking that unless we take action on climate change, we could lose the bears and their sea ice ecosystem. That moment inspired me to get involved in working to address climate change and inspiring others to join me—not only for polar bears, but for our own future.

Q: Several years later, you joined PBI’s staff and currently lead the Climate Alliance program as well as serving as our liaison with the zoos and aquariums in our Arctic Ambassador Center network. How did you go from being a participant to joining the staff?

A: After my first trip, PBI invited me back as a facilitator for a couple of years and eventually to join their staff. The fact that I had been a keeper and understood the zoo world was a plus for me, plus I was passionate about polar bear conservation and climate action. After I returned from Churchill, I was always looking for ways to integrate the experience into my keeper talks, to include a climate focus in my local AAZK chapter, and to recognize my role in our zoo as a community leader in reducing carbon emissions. It really filled my cup. 

My fellow keepers and I did a lot of community-based work, like tree plantings and partnering with a local energy company on energy audits and LED light bulb giveaways. We even created a plastic bag polar bear to help people visualize how plastic bags add up. Working at PBI has been a great fit for me, drawing on the network and the skills I developed as a keeper combined with the training I’ve gained on effective climate change messaging and community involvement.

Climate Alliance cohort 2019 on the beach in Churchill

Photo: Shervin Hess / Oregon Zoo

Q: How has the Climate Alliance program changed over the years?

A: One of the biggest changes is that we now have online modules that allow participants to prepare before their trip to Churchill. When I first attended more than a decade ago, online courses weren’t as prevalent and we had a lot of written materials to study ahead of time. Back then, we also completed a lot of the course work while we were in Churchill. When I started with Polar Bears International in 2014, we were just starting the shift to online modules and I’ve continued to refine them. Now, participants arrive with the course work behind them, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the tundra experience.

Another big change was to integrate the climate messaging developed by our friends at the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) into the Climate Alliance program. Being able to share tested, non-polarizing language with our zoo partners is huge. In 2015, I took a NNOCCI Study Circle Course that qualified me as a trainer. We’ve been using the NNOCCI language and metaphors ever since. Then in 2019, NNOCCI came on as an official partner. They developed a climate communications crash course for our Climate Alliance participants. In addition, NNOCCI team members help us facilitate the Churchill experience.

PBI's Marissa Krouse below the northern lights in Churchill

Photo: Shervin Hess / Oregon Zoo

Marissa Krouse in Churchill during Polar Bears International's Climate Alliance and NNOCCI Leadership Camp in 2019.

Q: Which zoos and aquariums are represented this year?

This year, keepers and animal care staff are participating from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Henry Vilas Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Louisville Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Memphis Zoo, North Carolina Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, Utah's Hogle Zoo, and Save the Chimps in the U.S.; Assiniboine Park Zoo and Toronto Zoo in Canada; and Pairi Daiza in Belgium. We are also grateful for the leadership from volunteer facilitators from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Oregon Zoo, Como Park Zoo, and NNOCCI.

Q: Any parting thoughts?

A: It’s been so gratifying to see all the good work being done by graduates of this program. I’ve always felt that by empowering keepers to talk effectively and confidently about climate change, we’d have an Incredible opportunity to reach an already engaged public—and year after year, zoo staff prove me right. 

So far, we have 186 graduates, and they keep knocking it out of the park, whether we’re talking about outreach during keeper talks; special events for awareness days like Polar Bear Week, International Polar Bear Day, and Arctic Sea Ice Day; new climate messaging in programming and interpretive exhibits; special policy outreach that helps educate and engage the public; outreach to civic leaders; or involvement in community climate initiatives. The zoos and aquariums in our Arctic Ambassador Center network are having a real impact on polar bear conservation and we’re grateful for their help and involvement.

Polar Bears International is immensely grateful to platinum sponsors Frontiers North Adventures (FNA) and Canada Goose for the complimentary use of FNA’s Tundra Buggy® Lodge and Buggies and for the warm parkas provided to participants during their week in Churchill; we’re also grateful to Courtyard by Marriott Winnipeg Airport Hotel and Calm Air for discounted lodging and flights. We also wish to thank our education partners, Manitoba Department of Sustainable Development and Parks Canada.