Public unaware of ocean acidification

10 May 2016

ocean acidification

Study shows that ocean acidification is an unknown topic for most members of the British public

A survey of 2,501 members of the public has revealed that just one in five people in Britain are aware of ocean acidification – a consequence of carbon emissions that poses serious risks to sea-life.

Furthermore, just 14% of the sample report that they have even basic knowledge about the subject.

The results of the public survey, which have been published today, 9 May, in the journal Nature Climate Change, are the first detailed assessment of the public’s understanding of ocean acidification.

While public awareness of climate change is now almost universal, the study authors, from Cardiff University, conclude that the same cannot be said for this parallel environmental issue, sometimes dubbed ‘the other CO2 problem’.

As more and more CO2 is put into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels, approximately a third of it is absorbed by the oceans. When CO2 dissolves in seawater it forms carbonic acid, making the oceans less alkaline and 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 a substantial risk to marine organisms and ecosystems.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,501 members of the British public. Although just 20% of respondents had heard of ocean acidification, the term prompted a range of negative associations among respondents, with many making an immediate connection with harm to marine organisms and ecosystems; others made incorrect associations with marine pollution from oils spills and chemical waste.

The researchers also set out to assess whether scientific reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 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.

Dr Stuart Capstick, the lead author of the study from the University’ School of Psychology, said: “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. By now, just about everyone has heard of climate change and a majority of people understand our part in it – even if we don’t all agree on what should be done – but only a small proportion of our sample said they knew anything much about ocean acidification.

“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.”