Textbooks Are Falling Behind on Climate Change

Yves here. Textbooks, like dictionaries, help anchor orthodox thinking and usage. Evidence that textbooks are becoming even more hesitant in discussing climate change suggests that big corporate pushback and doubt-sowing is succeeding.

By Caroline Preston,  a deputy managing editor at The Hechinger Report who helps oversee K-12 and higher ed coverage. Produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education; cross posted from Undark

Evidence is mounting fast of the devastating consequences of climate change on the planet, but college textbooks aren’t keeping up. A study released last month found that most college biology textbooks published in the 2010s contained less content on climate change than textbooks from the previous decade, and gave shrinking attention to possible solutions to the global crisis.

The study, conducted by researchers with North Carolina State University, was based on an analysis of 57 college introductory biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019. The researchers found that coverage of climate change increased over the decades, to a median of 52 sentences in the 2000s.

But that figure dropped in the 2010s, to a median of 45 sentences. That’s less than three pages, according to Jennifer Landin, an associate professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and a co-author of the study.

“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, provided some hypotheses for the decline in climate change content. One reason could be political backlash: Increased media attention on the topic in the 1990s and 2000s, with the Kyoto Protocol — the international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — U.N. climate conferences, and the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” led to growing controversy around climate change and rising climate denialism. Textbook publishers often try to avoid controversy in order to win approval for their books from education boards, the authors noted.

Another reason could be the expertise of textbook authors. The share of authors with backgrounds in cellular or molecular biology increased over the last decade among the books studied, whereas those specializing in ecology and science communications (who might be more likely to emphasize climate change) declined, Landin said.

The study identified other trends, too. Coverage of climate solutions dropped to just 3 percent of the total content on climate change, from a peak of about 15 percent in the 1990s. Information on climate change was increasingly left to the final pages of textbooks; in books from the 2010s, that material didn’t appear until readers had made it through nearly 98 percent of the text, compared with 85 percent in books from the 1990s.

“That was probably the most depressing part of this study,” said Landin. “If the instructors are going over the book in order, there’s a good chance that that gets dropped or glossed over.”

Tyler Reed, senior director of communications with the publisher McGraw Hill, whose textbooks were among those studied, wrote in an email that titles published before 2020 are now outdated and have been updated. He wrote that introductory biology classes must cover a “tremendous amount” of material on a range of topics, and that the company has strategies in place, including a peer review process, to ensure that it’s using up-to-date data on climate change.

Ansari, who helped co-author the study while an undergraduate student at North Carolina State, said she was “shocked” by how little space textbooks gave to climate change, although the findings were consistent with her own educational experience.

As a student attending public K-12 schools in Durham, North Carolina, in the 2010s, Ansari said her classes rarely touched on climate change. When she got to college and started talking with peers about global warming, she said, “I realized we all had misinformation or we were lacking information regarding it, in terms of what’s causing it and what actions we can take.”

The study did identify some ways in which climate change content had improved in recent years, namely in describing the consequences of warming temperatures. Textbooks in the 70s and 80s focused primarily on describing the mechanics of the greenhouse effect, whereas books published in later decades contained significantly more information on harms such as sea level rise, risks to human health, species loss, extreme weather, and food shortages.

Landin said she was encouraged by these changes and wanted to credit textbook authors for adding information on how warming temperatures are reshaping life on Earth. But she urged publishers and authors to focus more on actionable solutions to climate change — which exist and are already helping to rewrite the most dire climate projections.

Ansari, 23, said young people, some of whom feel hopeless in the face of the climate crisis, need greater awareness of tools for alleviating it.

“They are just like, ‘It’s too late,’” she said, referring to her peers and their parents. “And I will say, ‘No, no, there’s always something we can do.’”

She added, “But they weren’t given that information in their education system.”

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24 comments

  1. Grumpy Engineer

    A study released last month found that most college biology textbooks published in the 2010s contained less content on climate change than textbooks from the previous decade, and gave shrinking attention to possible solutions to the global crisis.

    Why do Preston, Landin, and Ansari expect biology textbooks to discuss possible solutions to climate change? That’s a strange place to focus attention.

    I can see biology textbooks discussing the potential effects of increased CO2 levels, but I really don’t expect biologists to have expertise in the physical systems that are responsible for fossil fuel consumption. Biologists don’t design power generation systems of any kind. They don’t design energy-consuming equipment either, like light bulbs or cars or heat pumps. They don’t implement energy-conservation practices, like insulation improvements or automated shading systems. Why would I expect biologists to provide the solutions? This is a strange expectation.

    More appropriate questions would be these: How much are engineering textbooks discussing energy efficiency and conservation? How much are architecture and urban planning textbooks discussing energy efficiency and conservation? How much are agriculture textbooks discussing CO2 mitigation practices? If you want textbooks to help, they need to be targeted at the students who will ultimately be working with the physical systems that use, directly or indirectly, fossil fuels. That’s not biologists.

    Reply
      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Heh. Normally I’d lump economists and political scientists into the category of “people from whom you wouldn’t expect any energy systems expertise”. But unfortunately, economists and politicians are often in positions where they can set energy policy, regardless of their level of expertise.

        Heck, for those guys, I want something beyond just a few pages in a first-year textbook. I wish they were all required to take a full semester course in energy systems, and then a second full semester course on how real-world constraints (whether it be a limited supply of labor, raw materials, or energy) must to be taken into account when developing policies.

        Just look at Germany. After hurriedly cutting themselves off from Russian gas (because of the war in Ukraine), they’ve shut down multiple industries entirely while burning a bunch of extra coal to keep the remaining lights on. This hurts both their economy and the environment. And sadly, it didn’t have to be that way. But I honestly don’t think their politicians understood how their energy systems worked.

        Reply
    1. petal

      Yeah, I don’t understand this. Biology is my day job, and I’ve also recently tutored HS level Bio. In college Biology classes, we didn’t touch on climate anything. It was focused on cell & molecular biology. Anything climate-related or nature-y was for separate classes like Ecology. And in HS, it would have been covered in Earth Science class(in NYS that was 9th grade). Biology was 10th grade.

      Reply
    2. Rolf

      Agree with you entirely, GE. I was immediately puzzled by the expectation that biological sciences would be the go-to source of insight into climate change and its effects. Sea level rise, incidence of severe weather, changes in precipitation patterns, direct and indirect perturbations from greenhouse gases … these describe physical systems, which biological systems interact with and respond to. El Niño/La Niña events (whose relationship to climate change is unclear) originate as oscillations of a physical system (ENSO). Current texts on the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, environmental and geochemical cycling, e.g., do include detailed treatment of climate change. These texts also discuss insight gleaned from models of past interactions among earth system reservoirs, parameterized by data from the geological record (stable isotope ratios, fractionation, mass-age distributions from the sedimentary record, major element ratios from fluid inclusion studies, etc., etc.). Yes, in the long term evolution of Earth’s atmosphere, there are key roles played by biological evolution: e.g., the appearance of vascular (Devonian) and flowering (Cretaceous) plants accelerating silicate weathering rates, but the secular (non-cyclic) changes in mass transfer rates that arose in consequence were geologic in pace, i.e., orders-of-magnitude slower than the geologically near-instantaneous change we’ve introduced by fossil fuel burning.

      Reply
    3. Hazelbrew

      I thought it odd as well.

      I would expect mention of climate change impacts throughout a decent biology textbook. Particularly when it comes to ecology or evolution.. i.e. looking at impacts of climate change on biological systems. And a small section on the mechanics of climate change.

      In the UK at least for teenage level teaching climate change would fall under Geography. I’d expect much more teaching and content as part of physical and human geography topics. E.g. teaching the carbon cycle in physical, and adaptation in human geography. That is the recent experience of my children also.

      But it has such far reaching consequences you can make a.case for it to appear in any of the sciences, and in the social subjects like.politics, history, economics.

      Reply
  2. Harri Henttinen

    A good example is also the recently released United Nations Executive Summary on Ozone levels which completely ignore the years 2019 (smaller),2020(greater),2021(greater) vs 2022(smaller). For two(2) years the ozone destruction/level of area around polar regions was increasing and for one(1) year decreasing. Unlike claimed in the UN report, human chemicals had nothing to do with it. but Solar Particles are the driver(s) in destruction and creation of the Ozone layer.

    UV light increases Ozone through photo ionization processes. In the current Solar Maximum Cycle, the levels of UV increase and commensurately Ozone increases. The UN report ignores this data completely.

    Reply
  3. BeliTsari

    Previously mentioned: first hearing AMOC slowing & clathrate gun hypothesis at a nerd kid summer school, in 1964 (a year before API’s “time is running out” speech). IGY & Sputnik thrust annoying inquisitive po’ass prole kids among our upscale kids (we’d be waiting for streetcars, as their au-pairs picked them up in Olds wagons). 4 decades later, working for Shell, Chevron & Williams; it was immediately apparent, DENIAL precluded our NEPO betters from noticing, their gas was coming from a string of TLP, floating in 4,800 to 6,900′ in the Gulf & I was buying 24″ x 2 1/2″ wall 125KSI Q&T seamless casing for 32K’ to 37K’ deep wells from mills using 1930s equipment, and we were all being 1099d or forced into early retirement by mostly foreign oilgarch owners, a decade before Katrina TRASHED Mars platform (and enabled Albright’s slick-water fracking pyramid scheme in the Marcellus). By the time we were being blasted with LRAD, thrown into unmarked Crown Vics by thugs in black ACUs & agents provacteurs, protesting Obama’s 2009 Pittsburgh G20, no lights, cameras or lefty blog-aggregators bothered to cover it. And when Hillary got $360K to regurgitate Rick Berman/ Koch funded agitprop about Putin funding eco-terrorist commies… we’d only heard about it from Assange (before Amy Goodman joined Atlantic Council, Bellingcat, CFR… whomever, & banished most of her best sources?)

    Reply
  4. Watt4Bob

    Books of all kinds are falling behind.

    Starting with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, written in 1962, and often credited with starting the environmental movement, a book you often can’t find at the library because right-wing nut-jobs steal it in a senseless act of ‘resistance‘.

    Jump forward to today where part of the attack on academia is the de-funding, and even the closing of libraries.

    A friend informs me of a project at a major university that is warehousing their books in unmarked boxes sorted by size!

    IOW, because these books are not catalogued, there is no way to find them in the future because they’re lost in an immense pile of boxes in a warehouse.

    What is the difference between this, and throwing them away?

    I believe there was a link here at NC about someone actually making money by closing libraries?

    All the serious people agree, we don’t need no education.

    Reply
    1. agent ranger smith

      Wasn’t / isn’t there a movement throughout libraries and library systems to “digitize” every possible thing?
      Isn’t the reigning religious belief in library maintainance and oversight that books are obsolete and should be destroyed whenever possible, or at least warehoused so inaccessibly that the public can be induced to forget their existence?

      Reply
    1. Kouros

      Climate change involves a lot of chaotic movements (meaning unpredictable), that will continue until a climactic point will be reached.

      Also, the best reservoirs are the snow packs on the top of the mountains, and that is going to happen less and less.

      Reply
      1. agent ranger smith

        Why would a climactic point ever be reached? As long as “society” dumps more heat-trapping gases into the atmoshphere, isn’t the climate forever chasing an ever-receding equilibrium point which never reaches equilibrium, because the heat never stops increasing?

        Reply
        1. Kouros

          There will be a population crash not too long in the future. Plus, with all this warmongering around, the northern hemisphere is in jeopardy.

          Reply
  5. Societal Illusions

    More proof that “climate change” is a political animal? The controversies surrounding it, the data, and supposed solutions are significant.

    If this is evidence of corporate capture, i somehow doubt it starts or ends there. Look at so many of our systems that aren’t sustainable or begetting public benefit but for profits.

    I’m curious why toxicity in our air, water, the depletion and poisoning of our soils using agri-chemicals, and the further concentration of wealth serves us all – humanity as a species or a culture.

    Education is clearly important to our future.

    Reply
  6. Val

    Day job is population/conservation genetics of North American and circumpolar vertebrates. In this capacity the Earth’s dynamic climate shows up in the genetic data sets regularly, in terms of glacial refugia, timing of colonization events, population bottlenecks etc. and particularly as regards philopatric waterfowl and native fish populations. I state this qualification as prologue only to hopefully avoid thought-policing by those far outside their bailiwick.

    Feeling hopeless? The low-hanging fruit for carbon emissions is, in order: massive military emissions, modern infrastructure, agricultural emissions and food waste, maintaining intact watersheds for carbon storage through soil and water conservation, all kinds of policy stuff we should be doing and a large majority would support enthusiastically. One of many neat things humans can do is create high-quality habitat for themselves and critters they love. The global warming folks never really seem to get to this point. Like this article, it is all hang-wringing and private jets, interestingly. Instead, hopeless fear, resonant with some other political projects.

    Where I am sitting now, 20,000 years ago was an ice sheet one mile thick. Very intriguing peoples making their livelihoods along its immediate edge. Mammoth bones can still be recovered from headwater sediments. I have been told that global warming began in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century. Please look at the Greenland and Antarctica ice core data, it is great.

    So as briefly as possible:

    What is the role of politically non-falsifiable hypotheses in science textbooks?

    What is the role of non-falsifiable hypotheses in the political economy?

    Though I really prefer the company of animals and plants, I do believe in humanity’s creative and productive potential. We have no choice but to do so, and there is plenty of evidence for it.

    Apologies for the rant

    Reply
    1. pretzelattack

      what non-falsifiable hypotheses are you talking about? granted we have only one earth, but science has made lots of projections/predictions about climate change, and they have largely been correct or too conservative.

      I think climate change kicked off with the industrial revolution. I’m not sure what to make of this sentence
      ” I have been told that global warming began in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century”. at any rate, this seems to be an odd time to revisit debates about climate change, as it becomes increasing obvious that the climate is changing.

      Reply
      1. BeliTsari

        Well, Rachel Carson could see the (bituminous coal) Cheswick, PA powerplant from her front porch? Took streetcars into Oakland, that followed the power grid and 1859s Drake’s (oil) Well was due north. But she wasn’t writing about AGW; which folks were writing about in the 1820s & Svante Arrhenius was published in 1896; it really took off after WWII with Jetson’s style white flight suburbanite Idiocracy, traffic jams, jet travel, trucks replacing trains, insanely inefficient EVERYTHING. Capitalism is a religion, with exponentially profligate waste as it’s perpetual sacrament?

        Reply
      2. Val

        This tab was still open on my e-thing and I am grateful, and for comments.

        This really deserves a more thorough unwinding, but briefly as possible-

        “science has made lots of projections/predictions about climate change, and they have largely been correct or too conservative.” authority handwave and no, see link below.

        “climate change kicked off with the industrial revolution”…and again very much no. check that ice core data, it provides between 800,000 years to 2.5 MY of context. Covers most of the time Homo been kicking around.

        I say, let’s look at the best available data and check the most current models, and here’s a bunch of adaptive stuff we can do immediately that would be of great benefit…thusly I am outgroup. DENIER! That’s the non-falsifiable bit. It is more psychological-political at this point, and it seems intended to be.

        Breezy certainty and sloppy constructs are hallmarks of scientism, and we have had no shortage of that of late. Perhaps I am hugging my Fauci doll and rocking back and forth as I write this. Perhaps not. The Sun, it burns my precious. Nuance and mass formation do not mix. Doesn’t mean we can’t have fun!

        Anyone interested in the practice of science as opposed to scientism knows science takes a lot more reading. I have included a useful link from a reputable source, with many quality references and a very thoughtful graph.

        It is from IPCC and Nature last year. Did not get picked up anywhere else that I am aware. Very much worth reading in full. Not interminably long, really lovely human minds, beavering away. Happy to attempt posting it at the great NC.

        http://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01192-2

        “Numerous studies have found that these high-sensitivity models do a poor job of reproducing historical temperatures over time and in simulating the climates of the distant past. Specifically, they often show no warming over the twentieth century and then a sharp warming spike in the past few decades, and some simulate the last ice age as being much colder than palaeoclimate evidence indicates.”

        Model issues with the competing hockey sticks. Models overlay phenomena, and if they are useful they should work forwards and backwards, F=ma, etc

        Apologies for too long post. Anyway, let’s all work to make the highest quality human habitat. Also, more frogs.

        Ribbit.

        Reply
  7. Rip Van Winkle

    Going down to my Jack Benny basement vault from a half century ago – a first chemistry class / second year high school textbook ~ 1972.

    Chemistry – An Investigative Approach- F. Albert Cotton, C. Leroy Darlington, Lawrence D. Lynch. Revised Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company.

    Contains sections on Acid Rain, Smog / Automotive Smog, Nitrogen Oxides, Insecticides, Lead-Sulfuric Acid batteries, Asbestos, Biodegradable, Carbon Dioxide / Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere, Carcinogens, Coal, Coke, DDT and …(wait for it)…the Scientific Method.

    So ‘falling behind’ … wonder what the schools have been teaching and prioritizing the past several years? Sorry, I don’t think it leads to the ‘right-wing-nut-jobs’.

    Don’t look now, but this afternoon there was a $400,000,000+ legal settlement (to third party plaintiffs for bodily injury and property damage, not .gov) for ethylene oxide emissions at a sterilization (not waste) plant in west Chicago burbs. The emissions were ongoing since 1986 (that translates to – SINCE 1986!) and the place had IEPA permits. Willowbrook Illinois and adjacent Hinsdale, Burr Ridge and Clarendon Hills are hardly low-income environmental sacrifice zones. Nothing about CO2 or climate change, though.

    Reply
    1. Watt4Bob

      So ‘falling behind’ … wonder what the schools have been teaching and prioritizing the past several years? Sorry, I don’t think it leads to the ‘right-wing-nut-jobs’.

      The date in your first paragraph is important.

      We’re roughly the same age, and when we were in school we learned a lot of stuff that is more or less glossed over these days if taught at all.

      By 1972, the theft of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, to prevent her dangerous ideas from hurting our children had been going on for ten years, and the right-wing attack on text books that contained information that offended their sensibilities was just gaining steam as all that was necessary to get rid of texts that you didn’t like was to convince Texans not to buy them.

      The right-wing also decided that an educated electorate was going to cause them problems;

      From THE ORIGIN OF STUDENT DEBT: REAGAN ADVISER WARNED FREE COLLEGE WOULD CREATE A DANGEROUS “EDUCATED PROLETARIAT” The Intercept;

      In May 1970, Reagan had shut down all 28 UC and Cal State campuses in the midst of student protests against the Vietnam War and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. On October 29, less than a week before the election, his education adviser Roger A. Freeman spoke at a press conference to defend him.

      Freeman’s remarks were reported the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Professor Sees Peril in Education.” According to the Chronicle article, Freeman said, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. … That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow [to go to college].”

      “If not,” Freeman continued, “we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people.” Freeman also said — taking a highly idiosyncratic perspective on the cause of fascism —“that’s what happened in Germany. I saw it happen.”

      You are correct about one thing, the damage to our county’s education system, rather than a case of “falling behind”, could, more properly be described as wrecked.

      Texas doesn’t choose our text books anymore, they don’t need to.

      The damage is done.

      Reply
      1. Jabura Basaidai

        pathetically sad and helpless feeling – i’m 73 and took the time to instill critical thinking in my daughter – she’s an only child and was 40 when she came along – have not had a TV or cable of any kind since i was 19 – read to her every night – the only hope is personal responsibility – imho

        Reply
  8. Jeff

    “The right-wing also decided that an educated electorate was going to cause them problems”

    Sounds like our federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies today.

    Reply

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