By Robin Garcia
As the holiday season draws near in the aftermath of the COP21 Paris Climate Conference, many of us will discuss climate change and global warming with family and friends at the dinner table. Climate change and global warming are two of the most-discussed environmental issues mainstream America relative to other topics, yet the disconnect between scientific professionals and the public continues. While at least 97% of climate scientists agree that warming trends are likely due to human activity, a national survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication in March 2015 found that 63% of Americans think global warming is occurring and 52% consider human activity to be a large component. These percentages are relatively unchanged since the previous survey in 2013.
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication suggests that the lack of change in public opinion may be due to the fact that Americans do not hear about or discuss global warming. 40% of the American public hear about global warming from the media at least once a month, and only 16% hear about global warming from someone they know. That last statistic represents an untapped source of knowledge, considering that the same survey found that 67% of Americans consider their own family and friends trusted sources of information about global warming.The moral of the story is clear – if you are knowledgeable about climate change and global warming, share that information. You don’t even need a large public audience to make a difference. Discussing the latest in climate change information with family and friends over dinner or cocktails can be instrumental in closing the gap.
But why stop at global warming?
Why can’t this information be applicable to how other environmental concerns are shared?
I spent over a year studying aquatic toxicology, specifically the toxicity of mosquito control insecticides and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in ecologically and economically important estuarine species. I can’t help but consider the fact that many PPCPs I use – coffee (specifically chosen for its caffeine content) every morning, ibuprofen when I have a headache, insect spray before a walk in the woods – make their way into the aquatic environment. There, they have both lethal and sublethal effects on aquatic species (as I found in my own work) and can eventually find their way into drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Any adverse effects on humans are currently considered to be low, but continue to be studied.
One of the hottest aquatic toxicology issues today is microplactics. A report by the United Nations Environment Programme explains that microplactics are used in many PPCPs to assist with the delivery of active ingredients, to form films (which can result in the “long-lasting” effect often desired in cosmetics), and for exfoliation. Many microplastics are nondegradable and are likely finding their way into the marine food web – a web that humans partake in – through zooplankton. Additionally, substantial amounts of microplastics have been found in sea salt, a rising alternative to traditional table salt.
I started a career in science communication after years of studying marine biology research because an accurate and approachable circulation of scientific news is important. I spend my work hours sharing marine and aquatic news with thousands of people through web content and social media. Yet there are times when I have to be reminded that it is just as important for me to reach out to those right next to me, such as when the survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows me that I’m more trusted as a daughter or as a friend (67% of Americans polled) than as a scientist (64%).
I am knowledgeable of climate science, and I share the news that I do understand with those close to me. I do not, however, consider myself a climate expert. I do consider myself well-versed in aquatic toxicology, and I am aware that less people know about the field, much less the possible risks associated with related human activity. So I’ll take a lesson from that Yale Project survey and speak up at home about the topics that I am passionate about and confident speaking to.
As I phase out face washes and toothpastes in my bathroom cabinet with “exfoliating beads,” I’ll explain that I’m doing so to reduce the amount of microplatics in the environment and eventually on my dining room table. I won’t hold back from discussing with friends that I’m researching the proper way to dispose of prescription medications to avoid introducing them into wastewater treatment plants that may be ill-fitted to remove them.
As science communicators, we have a responsibility to the general public and to scientists. Yet we can’t forget that we also have a responsibility to our neighbors, our friends, and our family. It may be the greatest effect we can have in closing the gap.
The views expressed in this blog post belong solely to its author and are not necessarily shared by PLOS.
Robin Garcia is a Science Communicator for a contractor company working at the NOAA National Sea Grant Office in the Washington, DC area. She studied marine biology at the University of Miami and the College of Charleston. Follow her on Twitter: @Capitol_Oyster.