Marine life is at risk from CO2 emissions
The reality of global warming may be setting in for many people, but some of the more subtle and unseen impacts of climate change are not so easy to grasp.
A recent survey in the UK showed that only 20 percent of the population are aware of ocean acidification. Even fewer — just 14 percent — say they have a basic understanding of what that means, even though scientists have been reporting their findings on the topic for many years.
Ocean acidification is a consequence of carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels that creates serious risks for marine life. As the water turns more acidic, it corrodes the shells of mollusks and affects the ability of at least some fish to find prey.
The survey was published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.
“Although we didn’t expect to find high levels of awareness or understanding of ocean acidification, we were surprised at just how overlooked this topic seems to be,” said Cardiff University’s Dr. Stuart Capstick, lead author of the study from the University’ School of Psychology.
“By now, just about everyone has heard of climate change and a majority of people understand our part in it but only a small proportion of our sample said they knew anything much about ocean acidification,” Capstick said.
About a third of the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans where it forms carbonic acid, making the oceans less alkaline and more acidic. Since the 1980s, the acidity of the oceans has increased by 30 percent.
The researchers also set out to assess whether scientific reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change during 2013 and 2014 might have affected levels of public awareness of ocean acidification. These widely-reported assessments focussed more than ever on the role of the oceans in relation to climate change, but were found not to have raised awareness of ocean acidification among the general public in the study.
“Scientific studies over the past few years have demonstrated the importance of ocean acidification for marine ecosystems and the people that depend on them, but we have barely scratched the surface in terms of bringing this issue to the attention of the public and policy-makers,” Capstick said.
The research also examined whether the provision of some basic, technical information about ocean acidification would lead to a change in attitudes among the study participants. The researchers did indeed observe a substantial jump in stated levels of concern in response to this information.
Dr Capstick cautioned however that their findings showed that the connection between ocean acidification and climate change could be a double-edged sword for those seeking to communicate about this issue.
“We provided study participants with one of two information types – either linking ocean acidification to climate change, or describing it as a stand-alone issue. When we made a direct connection between the two topics, part of our sample was less responsive to the information, perhaps due to an overriding scepticism among some people regarding climate change itself.”
Given the technical nature of ocean acidification, and its complex relationship with climate change, the researchers suggest that a more fruitful approach to engaging people about this important environmental topic could be to present it in terms of a risk to ocean health as well as stressing its importance for food security in parts of the world that are most-dependent on fisheries.