Coverage of climate change in college textbooks headed in wrong direction
Study by North Carolina State University finds most biology textbooks devote fewer sentences to climate change than they did before 2010
Evidence is mounting fast of the devastating consequences of climate change on the planet, but college textbooks aren’t keeping up. A study released today found that most college biology textbooks published in the 2010s contained less content on climate change than textbooks from the previous decade, and gave shrinking attention to possible solutions to the global crisis.
The study, conducted by researchers with North Carolina State University, was based on an analysis of 57 college introductory biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019. The researchers found that coverage of climate change increased over the decades, to a median of 52 sentences in the 2000s.
But that figure dropped in the 2010s, to a median of 45 sentences. That’s less than three pages, according to Jennifer Landin, an associate professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and a co-author of the study.
“It’s really a very small amount of content,” she said. “I certainly think we can go into more detail explaining the relationships between carbon, where this carbon is coming from, how it relates to fossil fuels, where fossil fuels come from. There are all these elements that we can address that I think are being glossed over.”
Landin and her co-author, Rabiya Ansari, provided some hypotheses for the decline in climate change content. One reason could be political backlash: Increased media attention on the topic in the 1990s and 2000s, with the Kyoto Protocol – the international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – U.N. climate conferences and the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” led to growing controversy around climate change and rising climate denialism. Textbook publishers often try to avoid controversy in order to win approval for their books from education boards, the authors noted.
Another reason could be the expertise of textbook authors. The share of authors with backgrounds in cellular or molecular biology increased over the last decade among the books studied, whereas those specializing in ecology and science communications (who might be more likely to emphasize climate change) declined, Landin said.
The study identified other trends, too. Coverage of climate solutions dropped to just 3 percent of the total content on climate change, from a peak of about 15 percent in the 1990s. Information on climate change was increasingly left to the final pages of textbooks; in books from the 2010s, that material didn’t appear until readers had made it through nearly 98 percent of the text, compared with 85 percent in books from the 1990s.
“That was probably the most depressing part of this study,” said Landin. “If the instructors are going over the book in order, there’s a good chance that that gets dropped or glossed over.”
Tyler Reed, senior director of communications with the publisher McGraw Hill, whose textbooks were among those studied, wrote in an email that titles published before 2020 are now outdated and have been updated. He wrote that introductory biology classes must cover a “tremendous amount” of material on a range of topics, and that the company has strategies in place, including a peer review process, to ensure that it’s using up-to-date data on climate change.
Ansari, who helped co-author the study while an undergraduate student at North Carolina State, said she was “shocked” by how little space textbooks gave to climate change, although the findings were consistent with her own educational experience.
As a student attending public K-12 schools in Durham, North Carolina, in the 2010s, Ansari said her classes rarely touched on climate change. When she got to college and started talking with peers about global warming, she said, “I realized we all had misinformation or we were lacking information regarding it, in terms of what’s causing it and what actions we can take.”
The study did identify some ways in which climate change content had improved in recent years, namely in describing the consequences of warming temperatures. Textbooks in the 70s and 80s focused primarily on describing the mechanics of the greenhouse effect, whereas books published in later decades contained significantly more information on harms such as sea level rise, risks to human health, species loss, extreme weather and food shortages.
Landin said she was encouraged by these changes and wanted to credit textbook authors for adding information on how warming temperatures are reshaping life on Earth. But she urged publishers and authors to focus more on actionable solutions to climate change – which exist and are already helping to rewrite the most dire climate projections.
Ansari, 23, said young people, some of whom feel hopeless in the face of the climate crisis, need greater awareness of tools for alleviating it.
“They are just like, it’s too late,” she said, referring to her peers and their parents. “And I will say, no, no, there’s always something we can do.”
She added, “But they weren’t given that information in their education system.”
This story about climate change content was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.