College textbooks aren’t keeping up with the severity of the global climate crisis

Content has stagnated since the 90s, despite climate impacts affecting the entire planet.
For every 1,100 climate change publications, one sentence is written about it in 2010 textbooks. Pexels

Textbooks are often deemed authoritative sources of information necessary for education. These learning materials include the latest scientific findings to reflect societal changes and show how knowledge has grown over time. They play a critical role in how educators tackle certain topics to educate their students in classroom settings.

According to a 2016 policy paper from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), formal schooling is the primary approach to address environmental challenges. Since curricular content has been shown to influence students’ knowledge of environmental issues, it’s essential to analyze how textbooks frame and discuss the pressing issue of climate change.

But, as it turns out, climate change coverage hasn’t changed drastically in science textbooks over the last 50 years, despite how much scientists have learned about the phenomena currently affecting and will continue to affect the entire planet. 

Climate change content didn’t increase in proportion to the number of scientific publications

A new PLOS One study analyzed 57 college-level introductory biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019 to examine the coverage of climate change content over the past five decades. The findings show that the content did not increase in proportion to the number of publications and research about climate change.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the content about climate change averaged less than 11 sentences. During the 1990s, the coverage increased to almost 40 sentences, where there was roughly one sentence for every 200 scientific publications about climate change. This ratio decreased later, resulting in one sentence for every 1,100 publications in the 2010s.

“Instructional materials build upon older materials, and that often works just fine,” says Jennifer Landin, associate professor of biological sciences at NC State University who was involved in the study. “But when there’s a large shift in our knowledge, or in the needs of society, we should reflect on educational coverage and ask ourselves if we’re meeting the needs of the next generation.” 

The authors present a couple of theories why the amount of content decreased. It’s possible that publishers gradually diminished content due to the controversy surrounding climate change. The authors’ expertise and interests also play a role since there was a decline in the number of authors focused on science communication compared to those who studied cell or molecular biology.

“Studying how [textbooks] change over time is an interesting way to examine the educational priorities and culture of authors and publishers in a specific field, in this case, college biology,” says Joseph A. Henderson, associate professor of social sciences at Paul Smith’s College and co-editor of Teaching Climate Change in the United States who was not involved in the study. 

[Related: The best ways to teach and talk about climate change with kids.]

Henderson suspects that there was decreased climate change content because “the field of biology culturally prioritizes cellular and molecular content at the expense of broader ecological and climatological issues.”

The study also revealed that the location of climate change passages in textbooks moved toward the end of the book. Many instructors teach topics in the order presented by the textbook, so if climate change issues are toward the end, it’s more likely that the content will not be covered or will only be passed over quickly, says Landin. 

Perhaps ecological issues are relegated to the end of these books because more complex and interdisciplinary problems require a foundation of more straightforward concepts in introductory chapters, says Henderson. The authors recommend addressing climate change earlier in instructional materials and courses to cover how climate change affects different areas of study.

An analysis of climate change content also revealed that textbook passages initially provided only a basic description of the greenhouse effect, which shifted to the coverage of the impacts of a warming climate later on. However, content about actionable climate solutions peaked in the 1990s and declined in the past two decades. Solutions also focus on national and international actions, which makes it seem like individual actions or consumer practices are insignificant.

Landin and Henderson say that prioritizing solutions at broader scales, like the governmental and intergovernmental levels, isn’t necessarily bad because they have the largest impact. “Individual actions matter, but they are insufficient at scale,” says Henderson. “There’s a broader issue here, which is that solutions to climate change are inherently political, social, [and] cultural.” Therefore, he adds that climate change education needs to be interdisciplinary by design.

That said, giving students information about factors that contribute to climate change, like one’s transportation or diet, allows them to make choices about their individual behaviors that can influence carbon emissions, says Landin. 

Promoting climate change education is necessary

Although the climate change coverage in textbooks hasn’t kept pace with the severity of the problem, that doesn’t mean young adults aren’t aware of environmental issues.

“There’s a raft of social science research showing that young people in the United States overwhelmingly understand and care about addressing climate change,” says Henderson. “They are just getting their information from other places: social media outlets like TikTok, internet news, friend groups, etc.”

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, young Americans belonging to the Millennial and Generation Z age groups are more engaged with climate change than individuals from the Generation X and Baby Boomer groups. They tend to see more climate change content on social media platforms, talk more about the need for climate action, and actively do more by volunteering and attending mobilizations. 

Still, ensuring that students learn about climate change from reputable sources like educational textbooks can supplement and support the knowledge they may gain anywhere else.

Henderson suggests that educators promote climate change education by insisting that state science standards include climate change across the disciplines. In 2020, the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted new student learning standards which require that climate change education be taught across several content areas such as science, social studies, health, and physical education, and visual and performing arts, among others.

[Related: Why some climate change adaptations just make things worse.]

The supposed 2021 roll-out of the new curriculum got delayed due to the pandemic. It was eventually implemented this year, making New Jersey the first state to integrate climate change education across K-12. The state also launched the New Jersey Climate Change Education Hub to give educators access to plenty of resources that will help effectively teach climate change topics in all grade levels. Henderson also recommends climate change education resources from the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), a portal with teaching resources for K-12 and college students that educators and scientists reviewed.

The educational system has been slow to adapt. The new study shows that both textbook companies and the broader field of biology don’t reflect student interests or the state of climate change science, says Henderson. He adds that the country, in general, has barely kept pace with the severity of the problem, which would challenge political and economic structures that contribute to the problem, namely carbon-based colonial development and related forms of global capitalism.

Carbon offsetting is the strategy of reducing carbon emissions from one source to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere. Polluting companies and countries buy “carbon credits” to offset the negative effects of their emissions by starting programs like tree-planting projects. However, most carbon offset projects are bought by the Global North, which may only allow them to continue polluting while shifting the burden of their emissions to the Global South where most carbon offset projects occur.

Overall, it’s necessary to improve climate change coverage in textbooks so that students can understand how environmental issues shape everyday life as they know it. But at the very least, says Henderson, textbook authors and publishers should have a background in climate change science.

“Creating instructional materials is a very complex and difficult job; we’re certain that there’s no intention to underrepresent environmental issues,” says Landin. “We hope this study will help authors and publishers in the future. The easiest approach is to review the balance of topics and the expertise of authors of introductory biology materials.”