College Biology Textbooks Haven’t Kept Up With Climate Change

A new study found that biology textbooks haven't proportionately increased in content with the increasing urgency of climate change consequences and scientific publication.
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  • The average length of passages about climate change was less than 70 sentences.
  • Over the past 50 years, climate change has moved further to the back of textbooks.
  • Content has mainly focused on national and international solutions and not individual solutions to climate change.
  • While students are using textbooks less, they are important to forming a class curriculum.

Colleges and universities are hubs for climate activism that spread to the rest of society — from education advocacy to fossil fuel divestment protests. Despite the urgency of student activism, college biology textbooks have talked less about climate change and deprioritized the material, according to a recent study.

The study by researchers at North Carolina State University found that college biology textbooks have not adjusted to the severity of climate change. Textbook content on the subject has proportionately decreased, has been moved further back in textbooks, and has not communicated solutions to climate change.

While student use of textbooks has decreased, they still play a critical role in teachers' curricula, researchers noted. According to the study, most teachers, especially science teachers, identify textbooks as having the most significant influence on content selection.

The researchers took 57 of the most widely used college biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019 to determine differences in content regarding climate change.

The study found that the number of climate change passages in textbooks hasn't kept up with the pace of change.

According to the article, "Coverage of climate change in textbooks increased from 1970 to 2019, though not consistently or relative to scientific research or the severity of the issue."

From the 1970s and 1980s to the 1990s, content increased by 264% from an average of 11 sentences to almost 40.

From the 2000s to the 2010s, content increased by 31% from an average of 51 sentences to 67 sentences.

According to the study, there was approximately one textbook sentence for every 200 scientific publications on climate change in the 1990s. The ratio lowered to one sentence per 1,100 scientific publications in the 2010s.

The study said that instructors usually progress chronologically through a textbook and frequently skip the end chapters. The end chapters contain the most controversial topics — like reproduction, evolution, and conservation — a tradition that began in the 1930s.

According to the study, climate change has been moved further to the back of the textbook. The earliest start page for climate change topics in textbooks was in the 1970s, with a median of 85.3% of the book. The latest start page median happened in the 2010s at 97.6% of the book.

From 1970-2019, the average start location was pushed back about 6 percentage points, from about 85-91% of the book.

The researchers found that climate change action focused on national and international solutions four times more than individual actions. Most individual/local solutions involved recycling, and only eight books mentioned transportation to decrease greenhouse gasses.

No textbook mentioned dietary choices, housing choices, or family planning.

Solutions have stayed the same, but the diversity of the effects of climate change hasn't.

"The increased variety of effects of climate change, presented through examples and data figures, could improve students' acceptance of climate change through inductive reasoning," said the study. "However, content addressing actionable, productive solutions peaked in the 1990s and has decreased in the past two decades. This creates an uncomfortable message for students, that climate problems are large and without solutions, and reinforces helplessness, anxiety, and depression."

The researchers predicted content would increase in proportion with publications and consequences of climate change, that content would move closer to the beginning, that greenhouse effect discussion would shift to effects and solutions of climate change, and that data figures would increase.