US textbooks on biology fall short on climate change content

29 Desember 2022

Photo: Pixabay/congerdesign

Climate change is a subject that students should be intimately familiar with as it will continue to impact their lives in a myriad of ways. Yet college textbooks on biology published between 1970 and 2019 in the United States fell well short of sufficient content when it comes to climate change, according to a new study by researchers at North Carolina State University.

“Climate change is a potent threat to human society, biodiversity, and ecosystem stability. Yet a 2021 Gallup poll found that only 43% of Americans see climate change as a serious threat over their lifetimes,” the scientists note, adding that they analyzed the content of 57 college biology textbooks to determine the priority that climate change was given in them.

“Our findings show that coverage of climate change has continually increased, although the greatest increase occurred during the 1990s despite the growing threats of climate change,” the researchers explain.

“Over time, coverage shifted from a description of the greenhouse effect to focus mostly on effects of climate change; the most addressed impact was shifting ecosystems. Sentences dedicated to actionable solutions to climate change peaked in the 1990s at over 15% of the passage, then decreased in recent decades to 3%,” they elucidate.

Before 1990, textbooks had an average of fewer than 10 sentences relating to climate change, but the length of climate-related content grew to 30 sentences in the 1990s and then to 52 sentences in the 2000s. However, in the subsequent decade the amount of climate coverage in textbooks declined to a median of 45 sentences, which means that most college textbooks published that decade had less information about climate change than they did in the previous decade.

This happened “despite significant advances in our understanding of how climate change is influencing ecosystems and the environment,” the scientists stress. Making matters worse, they add, the position of climate change-related sections kept moving further back in the textbooks from the last 15% of the overall text in the 1970s to the last 2.5% of the text in the 2010s.

Needless to say, this is a problem as most students evaluate the importance of a topic taught in school based on the priority placed on it in curricula and textbooks.

“These books are the baseline texts for helping students understand the science of life on Earth, yet they are providing very little information about a phenomenon that is having a profound impact on habitats, ecosystems, agriculture — almost every aspect of life on Earth,” says Jennifer Landin, an author of the study who is an associate professor of biological sciences at the university.

Along with length the nature of climate-related content has also changed over time, the researchers note. “For example, sentences dedicated to actionable solutions to climate change peaked in the 1990s at more than 15% of the climate content. However, in more recent decades, actionable solutions make up only about 3% of the climate content,” they explain in a statement on their findings.

“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. That suggests to students that nothing can be done, which is both wildly misleading and contributes to a sense of fatalism regarding climate change,” Landin observes.

“However, it’s not all bad news,” the scientist adds. “Textbooks in the 2000s and 2010s began including a wider variety of climate-relevant information, such as how climate is affecting species distributions, which can help students understand the various impacts of climate change.”

The researcher says she hopes the study “will serve as a wake-up call for publishers and instructors” who will better incorporate climate change into college courses on biology so that students can better understand the role climate change is playing in shaping life on Earth.

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