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Climate change is not adequately covered in college textbooks

A growing body of research evidence highlights the existential threat that climate change and its consequences pose to humanity, and to the Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity. However, a new study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University has found that college biology textbooks are woefully inadequate in covering this crucial topic. This may go some way to explaining why a 2021 Gallup poll found that only 43 percent of Americans see climate change as a serious threat over their lifetimes. 

The researchers analyzed 57 college introductory biology textbooks, published between 1970 and 2019. They assessed the content pertaining to climate change in terms of four categories: 1) the number of sentences of text devoted to climate change; 2) the location of the section in the textbook; 3) the topics addressed, including greenhouse effect, impacts of global warming, and actions to mitigate climate change; and 4) the presentation of data in figures. 

They found that the presentation of climate change information in college textbooks has varied significantly over the five decades in question. Prior to 1990, textbooks had a median of fewer than 10 sentences addressing climate change. In the 1990s, the median length of climate content was 30 sentences. This rose to 52 sentences in the 2000s, which is not surprising given the amount of emerging research into climate change and its impacts. However, the researchers found that the amount of climate coverage in textbooks actually decreased in the 2010s – dropping to a median of 45 sentences.

According to Jennifer Landin, an associate professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and a co-author of the study, that amounts to less than three pages of information.  

“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, suggested that the decrease in climate change content may have been a result of controversy and political backlash. Increased media attention on the topic in the 1990s and 2000s due to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol (the international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), along with U.N. climate change conferences and the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” led to growing controversy and climate denialism, which could have made textbook publishers shy away from covering the issues.

The researchers noticed other concerning trends in the textbooks as well. Coverage detailing potential climate change solutions decreased to just 3 percent of the total content on climate change, from a peak of about 15 percent in the 1990s. In addition, information on climate change was increasingly relegated to the very last pages of the books. Whereas textbooks from the 1990s positioned the climate change section approximately 85 percent through the book, those from the 2010s only tackled climate change material in the last 2.5 percent of the book. This means that if the instructor taught the content in the order in which it appeared in the textbook, the section on climate change was highly likely to be skipped or left out completely. 

“One of the most troubling findings was that textbooks are devoting substantially less space to addressing climate solutions now than they did in the 1990s – even as they focus more on the effects of climate change,” said Landin. “That suggests to students that nothing can be done, which is both wildly misleading and contributes to a sense of fatalism regarding climate change.”

The findings of the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, did reveal some ways in which the presentation of climate change content has improved in recent years. Textbooks from the 70s and 80s focused primarily on facts relating to the greenhouse effect, whereas more recent textbooks contained significantly more information on the harmful consequences of climate change, such as sea level rise, health risks to humans, biodiversity loss, extreme weather events and food shortages. 

Landin said she was encouraged by these changes and wanted to credit textbook authors for adding information on the potential impacts of warming temperatures. However, she stressed that publishers and authors should also include actions that people could take to mitigate climate change, thereby giving students a sense of how they can contribute to the solutions rather than the problems. Many actionable solutions already exist and are helping rewrite the most dire climate projections. 

She adds: “We are hoping that this study will serve as a wake-up call for publishers and instructors. We need to do a much better job of incorporating climate change into our courses if we want to prepare students to understand the role that climate change is playing in shaping life on Earth and how we study it.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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