(The Hill) — Climate change may represent a crisis, but that isn’t how college biology textbooks depict it, according to a new study.
The amount of textbook real estate devoted to climate change has continually expanded since the 1990s, according to a paper from researchers at North Carolina State University, published Wednesday in PLOS.
But since then, the material has moved ever further into the back of the books and become increasingly detached from practical solutions, researchers found, a change that tracks a broader pivot in the field of biology away from organisms and ecosystems and toward cells and microbes.
“The information in these textbooks educated generations; the minimal content about climate change reflects how little the topic has been valued,” they added.
The researchers said they think science education failures may help to explain why a majority of Americans — 57% — don’t believe climate change will be a “serious” threat in their lifetimes, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.
What the researchers found
Going into the study the scientists expected that over time, as climate change became more severe and evident, climate coverage would increase and move forward in textbooks — while bringing in more scientific rigor and focus on grassroots or individual actions.
But while coverage did increase, it declined in quality, position and usefulness, researchers found after analyzing 57 college-level textbooks published between 1970 and 2019.
Authors said while textbooks have increased their coverage of climate change since the 1970s — with a particular spike in the 1990s — several notable shifts have made that coverage less useful.
Coverage has become increasingly focused on the impacts of climate change on biology rather than on the mechanics of the greenhouse effect that drives it, researchers said.
The number of practical solutions offered has also decreased for decades, and the actionable solutions that textbooks do offer tend to be either marginal ones, like recycling, or those requiring global-scale international action.
Finally, researchers say, climate change coverage has moved to the back 2.5% of books — where it is most easily skipped.
Stark impacts and potential causes
These changes over the past several decades have had a notable impact on students, as well as society as a whole, the authors wrote.
Researchers said this form of climate coverage could lead “students to believe that their individual actions are inconsequential” and contribute to the perception that “climate problems are large and without solutions,” which can “reinforce helplessness, anxiety and depression.”
This represents a missed opportunity, they wrote: While a single individual can do little about climate change, “textbooks … contribute to the education of millions of young people.”
One problem researchers identified comes from the traditional way textbooks are organized — which is generally in a progression from the smallest microbial and cellular systems to the largest ecosystems.
That means systemic issues like climate change naturally cluster at the back of a textbook.
But authors pointed to a number of other possible causes, from outsized political influence by key conservative textbook buyers to cultural problems in biology itself.
Authors argued places like Texas and its education board exert a disproportionate influence on national textbook companies, while “societal concerns” may have broadly “contributed to the stagnancy in climate change content” as publishers push for more wide-scale textbook adoption.
They suggested another reason that cuts to the heart of larger changes in the culture of modern biology and how the field is funded and taught: A push to focus more on cellular and microbial biology than studying plants, animals and ecosystems.
The decline in coverage of climate change comes with a parallel fall in the number of textbook authors with a background in studying creatures and systems larger than microbes, the authors noted.
Researchers suggested four steps authors, teachers and textbook publishers can take to help their students learn useful and applicable lessons about climate change — and their role in it.
First, they suggested publishers and educators reconsider the standard order of topics so that it starts with organisms, then ecosystems, before diving into the microbial world.
They also suggested that climate change effects be paired with actionable solutions, which allows students to accept that it is happening while avoiding despair.
Researchers called on textbook companies to recruit more ecologists and environmental scientists as textbook authors, and ensure a better balance between microbiology and ecology, rather than treating it as an “afterthought.”
They further urged biologists to take stock of their field and called for university programs — and funding sources — focused on natural history and the biology of organisms.