Communicating the risk of ocean acidification

The oceans provide half of the oxygen in the atmosphere and have absorbed 30% of human-caused carbon emissions and 90% of the heat produced by global warming over the past few decades. They are changing as carbon emissions continue to increase, and concern about ocean acidification is growing. While public understanding of this change is limited, there is a growing literature on public perceptions of marine climate-change impacts.

The ‘Blue Planet effect’ has led to increased awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans and changes in legislation. However, people have always been very concerned about marine pollution and other visible marine issues such as beach cleanliness, coastal erosion and flooding. All of these are tangible and concrete issues – unlike climate change, warming oceans and ocean acidification. Certain regions of the UK have experienced severe flooding and there is clear evidence of coastal erosion in some areas. Research clearly shows that the public do not prioritise the same marine issues as scientists do and, instead, focus on the more visible issues described above. Although people acknowledge that human activities affect the ocean, they do not believe urgent action is needed when it comes to abstract impacts like climate change or ocean acidification.

Education is seen as necessary to increase what people know about the ocean – and the function of the oceans generally – to enable them to make informed decisions. The prevalent model is still one of knowledge-deficit: lack of information and understanding is a barrier to successfully engaging people with complex risk issues, so providing information should improve engagement. Enhancing people’s understanding of the water and carbon cycles may make invisible risks more salient, but closing the knowledge-deficit gap will not necessarily increase public engagement with marine climate-change impacts. If someone is unfamiliar with a particular risk, it does not mean that they do not have any thoughts or feelings about it: we form mental representations based on other, familiar associations. When people were asked about associations with ocean acidification 20% of responses were around harm to organisms and 14% cited pollution. It is clear from research that, despite knowledge about ocean acidification being limited, there are still high levels of public concern about the impacts of this risk issue.

Affective imagery has previously been shown to engage people with climate change. If presented appropriately, such imagery can help make risks less abstract and more relevant. When people were asked how ocean acidification made them feel, they listed strong negative emotions referring to impacts on marine organisms and the idea that humans are “messing with nature”. Many people have a strong attachment to the oceans: beaches and coastlines are popular holiday destinations and people report positive feelings towards marine life. People that have a strong attachment to a place are, generally, more concerned about risks to it and this applies in this case too: those who feel strongly attached to the ocean are more concerned about risks such as ocean acidification than those who feel less attached to it.

There is some evidence that local messages can engage people with climate change more effectively than global messages, and therefore these may be especially effective for those who are attached to their local area. Climate change is perceived as being more severe the further away the issue is spatially and temporally; it happens in the future and in another part of the world and so is psychologically distant. This is also the case for marine climate-change impacts and ocean acidification –people believe that those heavily reliant on the sea elsewhere in the world are likely to be at much greater risk from these changes than they are themselves. Risk communications that localise the issue may help to reduce distancing if they are done in an engaging way, rather than through the use of negative imagery that people may perceive as scary or overwhelming and causes them to simply disengage.

Communicating the risk of ocean acidification and other marine climate-change impacts can be made difficult simply because of terminology and jargon – ‘ocean acidification’ sounds negative even if one does not know what it means. It is important to learn lessons from climate change communications and apply them to future communications about unfamiliar or abstract risk issues. It is clear that people are keen to know more about risk issues that may have an impact on them personally, or on a place that they feel attached to, and that they also want to know what action they can take themselves. Recent environmental campaigns to engage the public with the issue of plastic pollution successfully used the emotive connection that people have to the sea and marine life to raise awareness and foster change. It is important that messages are positive, use engaging visual imagery, ensure solutions are offered and illustrate how individuals can make a difference. It is clear that some misconceptions about ocean acidification should be corrected (e.g. that it is caused by acid rain or could damage skin) and the scientific consensus about what is certain and uncertain is should be made obvious.

Communications should be framed for the audience that is expected to engage with the message; raising awareness of ocean acidification or other emerging risk issues associated with climate change is important and, if people in the wider community are to share their knowledge or opinions, public engagement must be inclusive.

By Elspeth Spence, University of Cardiff

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