Climate change may represent a crisis, but according to a new study, it is not presented that way in university biology textbooks.
According to the article published Wednesday in PLOS by researchers at North Carolina State University, the number of textbook properties dedicated to climate change has steadily increased since the 1990s.
But since then, the material has been relegated further and further into the background of books and has increasingly moved away from practical solutions, researchers found. This change is happening in the field of biology, away from organisms and ecosystems and towards cells and microbes.
“We were shocked that the text passages dealing with climate change have remained so short even in recent decades and that the scope of solutions has even declined,” the authors said in a statement.
“The information in these textbooks has trained generations; the minimal content on climate change reflects how little value the topic has found,” they added.
According to a 2021 Gallup survey, researchers believe that failures in science education could help explain why a majority of Americans—57 percent—do not believe that climate change will pose a “serious” threat in their lives.
What the researchers found
In the study, the scientists assumed that over time, as climate change became more severe and obvious, climate reporting would increase and continue to advance in textbooks — while at the same time scientific accuracy would increase and focus on grassroots or individual measures.
While reporting increased, it declined in quality, position, and usefulness, researchers found after analyzing 57 university-level textbooks published between 1970 and 2019.
The authors stated that although textbooks have expanded their coverage of climate change since the 1970s — with a particular increase in the 1990s — several notable changes have made this reporting less useful.
Reporting is increasingly focusing on the effects of climate change on biology and not on the mechanics of the “greenhouse effect” that drives it, according to the researchers.
The number of practical solutions offered has also been declining for decades, and the feasible solutions offered by textbooks are usually either marginal solutions, such as recycling, or those that require global international action.
After all, researchers say, reporting on climate change has slipped into the bottom 2.5 percent of books — where it is most easily skipped.
Strong effects and possible causes
These changes in recent decades have had a significant impact on students and society as a whole, wrote the authors.
According to researchers, this form of climate reporting could lead “students to believe that their individual actions are inconsequential,” and contribute to the perception that “climate problems are big and without solutions,” which can “increase helplessness, anxiety, and depression.”
This represents a missed opportunity, they wrote: While a single person can do little about climate change, “schoolbooks… contribute to the education of millions of young people.”
One problem that researchers have identified is the traditional organization of textbooks — which generally represents a development from the smallest microbial and cellular systems to the largest ecosystems.
This means that systemic topics such as climate change are naturally at the end of a textbook.
However, the authors pointed to a range of other possible causes, from the outsized political influence of important conservative textbook buyers to cultural problems in biology itself.
The authors argued that countries such as Texas and its Board of Education are exerting disproportionate influence on national textbook companies, while “societal concerns” by and large “may have contributed to the stagnation of content on climate change,” as publishers push for wider introduction of textbooks.
They proposed another reason that gets to the bottom of the profound changes in the culture of modern biology and the way the field is financed and taught: The urge to focus more on cell and microbial biology than on studying plants, animals, and ecosystems.
The decline in reporting on climate change is accompanied by a simultaneous decline in the number of textbook authors who have a background in researching creatures and systems that are larger than microbes, the authors found.
The researchers suggested four steps that 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 that publishers and educators rethink the standard order of topics — so that it starts with organisms and then ecosystems before diving into the microbial world.
They also suggested combining the effects of climate change with actionable solutions so students can accept that this is happening while avoiding despair.
Researchers called on textbook companies to recruit more ecologists and environmental scientists as textbook authors and to ensure a better balance between microbiology and ecology rather than treating this as an “afterthought.”
They also called on biologists to take stock of their subject and called for university programs — and funding sources — that focus on natural history and biology of organisms.