If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably pretty familiar with the term climate change. But what about the ‘other CO2 problem’, ocean acidification?

If you’re a bit rusty on your ocean acidification science, then you’re in good company: in a new study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, only one in five British citizens had heard of the term.

The study was led by colleagues at Cardiff University, and I was a co-author. In the paper, we report the findings of a survey of more than 2500 members of the British public, representing one of the first major investigations into the uncharted waters of perceptions of ocean acidification.

The term ocean acidification (or OA) refers to the increasing acidity in the world’s oceans as a result of rocketing carbon emissions. As more and more CO2 is put into the atmosphere, approximately a third of it is absorbed by the oceans, which causes the water to become more acidic. Since the 1980s, the acidity of the oceans has increased by 30% and, if CO2 continues to be emitted at today’s rate, it is set to increase by 150% by 2100. This poses major risks to sea-life, marine ecosystems, and ultimately the people who depend on them.

Despite the fact that people didn’t know a great deal about OA, the term prompted an instinctively negative emotional response among participants in the study. Some correctly identified the potential for harm to marine organisms and ecosystems; others incorrectly made associations with marine pollution from oils spills and chemical waste.

In the second half of the study we provided a small amount of technical information about OA, to measure its impact on people’s views. It is well known that people with different values and political views tend to differ in their levels of concern about climate change. To see whether this polarisation would spill over into views about OA, we tweaked the design so that the information about OA was explicitly linked to climate change for half of the sample; for the other half, it was presented as a standalone issue.

This relatively minor difference in how the information was ‘framed’ led to perhaps the most interesting finding of the study. Among those who read about OA as a standalone issue, there was no evidence of polarisation. But respondents with higher levels of ‘individualism’ (a personal value orientation that predicts scepticism about climate change, entailing a preference for free-markets and self-reliance), were less responsive to the OA information when this was linked to climate change.

That is, linking OA with climate change seemed to trigger an ‘echo’ of the polarisation that still dominates the climate change debate in many Anglophone nations.

As awareness of the risks of OA grows, there is a chance that it could fall into the same siloed discourse that plagues climate change. But because knowledge is currently so low, there is also an opportunity to apply everything we know about good communication and engagement from the climate realm to ‘the other CO2 problem’.

Using language that identifies OA as something that people with a range of different values might care about - for example, by linking it to conservation and stewardship - might be one way to avoid the issue rising to prominence in a polarised way.

People seem to associate OA with a range of negative ideas and mental images. But like other emotionally powerful climate impacts, provoking fear or dread amongst the public only makes sense if this emotional power is coupled with constructive options for reducing or responding to the risks conveyed.   

And finally, it is crucial to emphasise the human dimensions of the issue - for example the impact on communities dependent on fisheries - because developing human stories to bring the science to life is an essential way to give the issue a sense of meaning.

By applying what we’ve learnt about communicating climate change, perhaps we can prevent public engagement with OA falling into the same traps as awareness of the issue starts to evolve.

The research, lead by Cardiff University, was carried out as part of the UK Ocean Acidification research programme (UKOA). This programme, now completed, was co-funded by the UK Natural Environmental Research Council; Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Photo by Lindsay Hickman, CC BY-NC-ND-2.0, Flickr

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