Though dozens of surveys on global warming have been completed over the past twenty years, the results have never been compiled into one succinct summary. Matthew Nisbet, assistant professor at American University, gathered results from over seventy surveys in order to create a review of public opinion trends in regards to global warming.
In terms of public awareness and understanding they found that as time progresses and media coverage increases, more people report having heard about global warming, however, even twenty years after global warming has been brought to the attention of the public, few Americans believe that they fully understand the issue. Despite this confusion among the public, most do believe that climate change is prevalent but because of its “creeping nature,” many tend to discount its threats.
In order to stave off global warming most Americans vote to set higher standards for automobile, industry, and CO2 emissions and support spending government money on alternative energy forms.
Nisbet, M. C. and T. Myers. 2007. Twenty years of public opinion about global warming. Public Opinion Quarterly. 71: 444-470.
For the general public, when the phrase “environmental problems involving carbon dioxide” is mentioned, global warming is likely what first comes to mind. The average person may not know or care enough about environmental issues to have even heard of, let alone be well informed of, ocean acidification, the other carbon dioxide problem. While it might not seem necessary that general, non-scientist, citizens should know about ocean acidification’s background and effects, it is in fact very important, because the more people there are that are well-informed, the higher the chances are of stopping or at least lessening the effects. It has been and will continue to be hard to bring awareness to the public knowledge about ocean acidification and its many dire effects. However, the media must take on this challenge and do its best to present the facts correctly and effectively, so that a proper response is elicited from the public.
This can be done, as the media has done an impressive job of thoroughly informing the public about global warming. In fact, there has even been some speculation (according to a CBS news blog by Brian Montopoli) that the media is perhaps hyping up global warming. The Environment and Public Works Committee Communications director stated that “Senator James M. Inhofe believes that poorly conceived policy decisions will result from the media’s nonstop hyping of ‘extreme scenarios’ and dire climate predictions.” Whether it may be by overemphasizing the consequences of global warming, the end result is that the general audience is well-informed and is aware of need for and the methods pertaining to solving the problem of global warming. Similarly, the media must convey the urgency and need for action in regards to ocean acidification. This task is decidedly harder than that of presenting global warming, given that ocean acidification’s effects (taking place thousands of meters below sea level) are practically unfelt to humans.
Another critical task that the media must tackle is giving the general public the means by which they can help. It would be pointless to garner the attention of so many people, without presenting them with opportunities through which they can contribute to the sustainability of the ocean ecosystem. By publicizing specific new alternative energy methods and innovations, the public will be more likely to feel like they are contributing to an important cause, as opposed to one that will die out in a few years.
In addition, by informing and heightening the interest of the common people, the media will indirectly be affecting the decisions of policymakers. Policymakers generally strive to cater to the interests and opinions of the public, and by attempting to please people who are interested in positively contributing to the solution for ocean acidification, they will institute favorable policies. Thus, the most effective way of communicating to different audiences that ocean acidification is inhibiting the sustainability of the ocean ecosystem is through the media’s strong hold on the public’s knowledge and opinions.
Given that the negative consequences of ocean acidification have only recently been discovered, it’s not particularly surprising that ocean acidification is not yet common knowledge. While those who are aware of this problem are likely to know of its far-reaching effects on both ocean life and human welfare, truthfully, the consequences of ocean acidification seem less severe and more distanced from humans than those of global warming.
With global warming, we have to worry about rising sea levels and mass incidences of drought and famine, but with ocean acidification, the biggest concern is reduced calcification rates for select marine organisms. Of course, the effects of reduced calcification are significant, but there are too many degrees of separation between that and impacts on human welfare for many people to see the urgency in the situation. Ocean acidification is near invisible for the average person—it takes place in oceans and at the microscopic base of food webs. Now, contrast that to global warming and the iconic images many people have seen of receding ice caps and stranded polar bears. It’s much easier to visualize the devastating effects global warming can have, and as such, this side of the carbon emissions problem has gained much more attention in popular media. Public knowledge is controlled to a large extent by the information and the stories that media outlets cover, and global warming is stealing the spotlight from its lesser-known sibling.
Those who have heard of ocean acidification are likely to have an interest— personal, professional or economic— in ocean or environmental sciences. If ocean acidification is relevant to their lives, chances are that they’ll know about it. If ocean acidification has the potential to impact their livelihoods, like those of fishermen, the chances are even greater that they are aware of the consequences of ocean acidification on ocean ecosystem services. It’s just a problem that few other people know.
Raising general awareness will require the involvement of mass media. If ocean acidification is popularized in the same way as global warming, it will have a much greater opportunity of reaching the same level of common knowledge. Regardless of the number of scientific journal articles warn against the dire ramifications of ocean acidification, if the information is presented in a form that is inaccessible and inconvenient for the average person, the knowledge cannot spread. Only when ocean acidification is presented through popular media in a way that makes it easy for the layperson to understand and visualize will it gain a foothold in the sphere of public concern.