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Should Ocean Acidification Be Communicated as Closely Linked to Climate Change?

A range of environmental issues — from biodiversity to ocean acidification — have linkages to climate change.  Yet, given polarized views on climate change, how can these linkages be effectively communicated?  In a guest post today, Simone Lewis-Koskinen examines the communication challenges specific to ocean acidificationShe is a graduate student in this semester’s “Science, the Media and the Environment” course — Matthew C. Nisbet.

Ocean acidification is broadly defined as the process by which our oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, a direct consequence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (Interacademy Panel, 2009). Numerous laboratory studies demonstrate the deleterious effects of ocean acidification, suggesting the increase in ocean acidity will profoundly impact the marine environment by destabilizing ocean chemistry (Orr et al, 2009). The altered chemical composition has been shown to reduce the calcification capacity of shell building organisms, including shellfish, plankton and reef builders (Feely et al, 2004), among other consequences. As such, over 150 scientists have called upon world leaders to take immediate action to set research priorities and significantly reduce CO2 emissions to avoid widespread, severe socio-economic and environmental damage (UNESCO, 2009).

Dubbed the “evil twin” to climate change or the “other climate problem,” ocean acidification is a relatively new issue to enter into the climate debate. While reports on ocean acidification allude to climate issues by referring to the rise in carbon dioxide emissions (Orr et al, 2009; Orr et al, 2005; Sabine, 2004; Caldeira, 2003; RoyalSociety, 2005), rarely do they state that climate change is causing ocean acidification. The International Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) pointedly distinguishes that:

It is important to note that ocean acidification is not a result of climate change, but is rather a direct consequence of the increased CO2 levels that also cause climate change. Ocean acidification will, however, affect future climate change by causing a decline in the ocean’s capacity to absorb increasing atmospheric CO2–(IPCC, 2007b).

Policy Proposals to Address Ocean Acidification

In recognition of the severity, scale, and uncertainty associated with ocean acidification, proposed policy actions address the need for immediate emissions reductions and a better understanding of the biological and geological causes of the problem (Ocean Acidification).

Policy strategies to date include:

  • Enhancing and coordinating research efforts to identify environmental indicators; increase understanding of the potential effects; and to develop models to project species and ecosystem impacts;
  • Significantly reduce global CO2 emissions through international agreements and cooperation.
  • Ocean Acidification and Climate Change

    Given the nature of these strategies, climate change and ocean acidification are often inherently linked in policy debate.  As some experts have argued, ocean acidification provides “a powerful reason, in addition to that of climate change, for reducing global CO2 emissions” (RoyalSociety, 2005).  Dealing with both problems requires an integrated approach that applies scientific understanding to intense policy debates that turn on economic, political, and social considerations.

    Though perhaps not directly related, climate change and ocean acidification share many characteristics beyond the policy arena, including global, catastrophic predictions stemming from excess carbon emissions. Labeling ocean acidification as a climate change issue would undoubtedly offer significant challenges and opportunities. Some argue ocean acidification could “breathe life into ineffective climate change campaigns” (OneWorld), while others believe it should be presented as a separate issue.

    As an emerging science with relatively little media coverage to date, there is a unique opportunity to shape public attitudes toward ocean acidification. The selective framing of the issue will play a significant role in building wider public support for policy action.

    Arguments for Framing the Two Problems as Linked

    Some advocates have argued that presenting ocean acidification as an issue linked to the broader climate change debate could enhance the problem’s salience while also bolstering public support for action on emissions reductions.

    As a highly publicized and politically contentious topic, the vast majority of the American public is aware of climate change (Pelham, 2009) and has heard of the potential long term, widespread ramifications, regardless of their personal beliefs. Framing ocean acidification as a threat multiplier, exacerbating the rate of environmental change, allows the public to associate ocean acidification with the already familiar issue of climate change without having to build awareness from the ground up.  Furthermore, studies suggest that the concerted impact of ocean acidification and climate change will further worsen marine ecosystem damage (Plymouth Marine Laboratory, 2007). 

    In sum, proponents of linking the two issues argue that “ocean acidification adds another important reason why fast policy actions are necessary to abate CO2 emissions, protect our economy, and preserve the health of our global ecosystems.” (Miles and Bradbury, 2009).  Communication strategies should capitalize on public awareness of climate change, goes this argument, building on the tremendous number of resources and groups already devoted to climate action, in the process increasing public attention  to ocean acidification.

    Risks of Associating Ocean Acidification with Climate Change

    Many, however, fear ocean acidification could fall victim to the same plights that have stalled public support for climate change if the two issues were associated. The danger in making a direct association lies in transferring the denial and apathy that characterizes public attitudes towards climate change to ocean acidification, thus hindering future policy action.  

    While there is a general consensus among scientists that ocean acidification will negatively impact the marine environment, insufficient field study data fosters a degree of scientific uncertainty.  Reports and studies profiling ocean acidification note that while outcomes are “highly predictable into the future” (Ocean Acidification), they are still not well understood, especially in relation to climate change.

    Studies also suggest that communicating about climate-related impacts that still possesses high levels of uncertainty can result in public distrust, hindering policy action (Maibach et al, 2008). These inherent uncertainties could have unintended negative consequences for public engagement, especially among publics already indifferent or doubtful about climate change.

    Additional research suggests that most Americans believe scientists are divided over the issue of climate change. Whereas 71% of survey respondents believed scientists have doubts about the evidence on global warming (VCU, 2010), the academic community agrees that anthropogenic carbon emissions have accelerated the rate at which ocean surface waters are acidifying (National Academies, 2010).

    Given the public’s current skeptical perception of climate science, opponents could falsely portray the scientific uncertainty of ocean acidification as one more example where advocates are trying to go beyond the evidence to raise alarm over climate change.  Coupling ocean acidification and climate change therefore runs the risk of associating existing skepticism and apathy about climate science with ocean acidification.

    Risks Outweigh Benefits in Linking Ocean Acidification and Climate Change

    While ocean acidification is beginning to gain more traction as an issue, it has yet to break through to mainstream media outlets. Moving forward, the framing devices used will significantly impact the degree to which the environmental community can build momentum around the issue and support for policy action.

    Upon examination of the potential benefits and consequences of framing ocean acidification within the broader climate change debate, the risk of transferring the negative imagery and emotions linked to climate change outweigh the potential benefits of association. Moreover, advocates for action on ocean acidification could unintentionally be amplifying the inherent uncertainty associated with the issue by linking it to the uncertainties surrounding ocean-related climate impacts.  

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    Therefore, a separate frame would best serve all future ocean acidification communication strategies.  In a follow up blog post, I will discuss which frames of reference are likely to be effective at mobilizing wider public concern over ocean acidification while avoiding the pitfall of linking the issue to climate change.

    –Guest post by Simone Lewis-Koskinen, an MS student in Environmental Science at American University.

    This post is part of the course “Science, Environment, and the Media” taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on the climate change debate by Lewis-Koskinen and members of her project team.


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