Increasing Young Adult Environmental Awareness for Marine Sustainability

Chen, C. -L., & Tsai, C. -H. (2016). Marine environmental awareness among university students in Taiwan: a potential signal for sustainability of the oceans. Environmental Education Research, 22, 958 - 977.

The history of marine environmental stewardship and ocean access in Taiwan has been fraught over the past century. From 1945 to 1987, the Taiwanese government largely banned civilians from Taiwan's coast, which primarily was reserved for military activity. Those restrictions, which impeded its citizens' personal interactions with coastal and marine resources, negatively impacted the public's relationship with the ocean. Because of this, the public has had little understanding of and demonstrated low levels of concern about marine sustainability.

Within this context, this study's authors set out to explore Taiwanese university students' perceptions of and interactions with the ocean. The researchers sought to understand how university students, as future environmental decision-makers, view the ocean, one of the country's most important natural resources. Notably, university students have largely grown up in a more liberal era than older Taiwanese citizens: in 1987, martial law ended and, by 2000, the new Democratic Progressive Party began implementing more environmentally conscious marine development and protection policies. Despite those changes, the island still faces significant challenges from coastal energy use and infrastructure development. The authors posit that these challenges will require problem solving and leadership informed by educated perspectives.

To explore how current university students think about marine resources, environmental stewardship, and ocean sustainability, the authors administered a structured questionnaire to 1,000 students across Taiwan. Of those students, 500 completed the survey online, and 500 completed it in person. From those, 825 of the surveys included valid responses related to three core areas: environmental attitudes, marine knowledge, and environmental behavior.

To assess environmental attitudes, researchers modified the New Environmental Paradigm to reflect marine issues and students' concerns with intergenerational equality. To assess marine knowledge, the authors developed 18 items inspired by leading experts in the field of marine sustainability augmented with information found on government environmental agencies' websites. Finally, to consider behavior, the questionnaire addressed five categories of action: persuasion, consumer action, ecological management, political action, and legal action.

The questionnaires recorded Likert scale responses to measure students' attitudes, knowledge, and behavior. The study found that students generally had positive attitudes toward the environment, with females scoring higher than males. The students reported having a moderate level of marine environmental knowledge, and those who had completed marine-related courses or participated in marine recreational or conservation activities had higher levels of marine knowledge. With regard to specific activities and topics, the students were particularly unfamiliar with ocean acidification and exclusive economic zones. The topic of environmental behavior received the lowest mean scores overall, with scores differing significantly between those who took marine courses or participated in marine conservation and recreation and those who did not.

Ultimately, similar to prior studies, the findings suggest that environmental behavior correlates with attitude and knowledge. The authors argue that the gap between positive environmental attitudes with moderate marine knowledge and little marine or environmental action must be filled by linking environmental concern with better avenues for environmental behavior. They further suggest that students with greater marine knowledge and engagement in marine activities may be able to increase their overall marine environmental awareness.

The authors recommend that universities increase the availability of marine-related activities, clubs, courses, and events in safe, easily accessible settings. They cite safety concerns as a major barrier to many respondents' physical engagement with the ocean, which is a key component of participation in marine activities. Another area for improving marine environmental engagement and awareness is to provide more opportunities for learning about legal- and policy-related dimensions of environmental health. The authors point to a need for further research on how learning about political and legal action could lead to a sense of environmental responsibility and, in turn, to environmental behaviors.

Given Taiwan's rather fraught marine history, this study helps illuminate the country's needs with respect to improving human–environmental interactions in and around the coastal zone and ocean. By improving access to learning and engagement opportunities, the authors suggest that universities could play a key role in filling the gap between environmental concern and environmental action.

The Bottom Line

<p>In places like Taiwan, where university students, who are future leaders, may not traditionally have had an opportunity to build their knowledge and skills related to the coastal and marine environment issues, universities should consider providing opportunities for and lowering barriers to entry in marine-related education and activities. Doing so through coursework on a range of dimensions, including law and policy as well as marine science and ethics, increases the likelihood that university students will be well-educated in the coastal and marine zones, and related issues, and through the course of those educational experiences, given opportunities to engage with issues through legal, political, conservation, and lifestyle avenues. Such heightened knowledge and active engagement are critical to long-term marine environmental health.</p>