Few Britons have ever heard of ocean acidification

A new poll finds that only 20% of Britons have heard of ocean acidification – and even fewer know anything about it

If you’ve heard of ocean acidification, you’re in the minority. If you know that ocean acidification is caused by carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels and cutting down rainforests, you’re practically a scholar. A new poll published in Nature Climate Change finds that around 80% of the British public has never heard of ocean acidification.

“It is sobering to think that few people are aware of this process given its widespread risks for the natural environment, and the potential knock-on effects for people and economies,” Stuart Capstick, co-author of the paper and a research associate at Cardiff University’ School of Psychology, said.

While awareness of climate change has grown widely in recent years, the other major impact of burning fossil fuels – ocean acidification – is largely occurring beneath the public radar in the UK.

“We weren’t all that surprised that there was an overall lack of awareness,” Capstick said. “Unlike with topics such as climate change or air pollution, this is not an issue that has been covered much in the media.”

“Along with ocean warming and sea level rise, ocean acidification adds another very worrying threat, especially as they are happening at the same time, to the future of marine ecosystems,” Carol Turley, a senior scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said.

New research has also found that ocean acidification likely played a key role in the world’s biggest mass extinction, the Permian-Triassic extinction some 252 million years ago. Over 96% of marine species were obliterated.

Despite all this, only 14% of Britons know a little or more about ocean acidification, according to the psychologists, who interviewed 2,501 participants. The poll also found that respondents often held incorrect views of ocean acidification, for example, that it is caused by oil or chemical spills and not carbon emissions. While research on ocean acidification has exploded over the last 15 years, scientists said that it has clearly not trickled down to the public yet.

“The UK government and media can’t be accused of dropping the ball in communicating ocean acidification, since arguably they have never really picked it up in the first place,” Williamson said. “And there is bias against serious coverage of environmental issues in much of the print media.”

He added that a lack of scientific background among many media editors may lead to little “competence and confidence to recognise what is important.”

But Capstick, who has a background in psychology, said the media also needs to be careful how it frames ocean acidification.

“We have learned the hard way from many years of ‘doom and gloom’ stories about climate change that this doesn’t always galvanise action. It’s just as important to note that we can do something about this.”

The solution to ocean acidification is actually amazingly simple – and it’s the same solution to climate change – cut carbon emissions quickly, aggressively and eventually down to zero.

“Moving away from fossil fuels and high-carbon lifestyles is really the only answer to tackling ocean acidification, and so let’s do everything we can,” Capstick said.

The first step, though, is getting the word out.

Jeremy Hance, The Guardian, 27 May 2016. Article.

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