‘Shocking’ lack of attention to climate change in textbooks

Growth of chapters seen in the 1990s has tailed off, and they are increasingly pushed towards the back

December 22, 2022
Source: iStock

University biology textbooks still pay a “shocking” lack of attention to climate change and in particular to solutions to global warming, according to the authors of a new study.

Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) found that US textbooks paid increasing attention to the issue in the 1990s, but that recent changes have been more minor.

Authors Rabiya Arif Ansari and Jennifer Landin said textbooks were important documents for learning about which information a society deems valuable, with the sequencing of chapters playing a critical role in how content is addressed.

Controversial topics have often been placed towards the back of books, and other studies have shown that these chapters are frequently skipped.

The pair analysed 57 college biology textbooks to see how climate change was taught between 1970 – when they say scientific consensus on global warming was reached – and 2019.

Their findings, published in Plos One on 21 December, found that coverage of climate change has continually expanded, with the greatest increase occurring in the 1990s.

While coverage of the effects of climate change has increased and diversified, the pair warn that “the amount of content, placement within the book, and communication of solutions have not kept pace with the severity or scope of the problem”.

The passages devoted to the issue have moved further back in the books, while the study also found that the proportion of text dedicated to actionable solutions has fallen from over 15 per cent of the passage to just 3 per cent since the 1990s.

The researchers say Americans are among the top emitters of carbon dioxide per capita, meaning that understanding the process of climate change should be a priority for the country.

And while the study only looked at US literature, it adds that translated textbooks are often distributed worldwide, so there are global ramifications.

Ms Ansari is an NCSU undergraduate who spent the pandemic studying the issue with Dr Landin. The pair told Times Higher Education that climate change should be addressed earlier in biology courses. They propose that educators should intentionally pair coverage of climate change effects with potential solutions.

“We were shocked that textbook passages addressing climate change remained so short, even in recent decades, and that the coverage of solutions actually decreased,” the authors said.

“The information in these textbooks educated generations; the minimal content about climate change reflects how little the topic has been valued.”


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