Science textbooks are seriously under-representing climate change

A new study examines how climate science was addressed in 16 top undergraduate textbooks.

According to a new study, less than four percent of the pages of popular introductory science textbooks are dedicated to discussing climate change. (CREDIT: Getty Images)
According to a new study, less than four percent of the pages of popular introductory science textbooks are dedicated to discussing climate change. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

A new study published this week in the journal Environmental Communication holds a worrying message for public understanding of climate science: less than four percent of the pages in the most popular introductory physics, biology, and chemistry books published between 2013 and 2015 were devoted to discussing climate change.

The study’s authors examined the textbooks to understand how entry-level undergraduate science courses — classes designed both for a general public and as a jumping-off point for future scientists — treated the issue of climate change from an interdisciplinary standpoint.

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Researchers combed through more than 15,000 pages of current editions from 16 textbooks, published by four prominent textbook publishers, over the three year period between 2013 and 2015, looking for any mention of climate change or relevant topics, like fossil fuel extraction or renewable energy.

The study found that while references to climate change varied greatly between textbooks, on average, less than four percent of the pages were dedicated to discussing climate change and related issues like renewable energy technology.

References to climate change were highest in biology textbooks, though still fairly low (just 2 percent of pages). By contrast, physics books had the lowest number of references, with an average of less than 0.5 percent of a book’s total pages.

The researchers acknowledged that in introductory science courses — which often offer students a brief overview of relevant topics, rather than a deep exploration of a single issue — climate change is rarely a focus. But they also say that, as the consequences of climate change become increasingly clear, it’s important for even introductory courses to prepare students to grapple with the scientific and cultural issues presented by climate change.

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“It’s a difficult balance in an introductory course,” Rachel Yoho, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said in a press release. “However, our students are facing these issues inside and outside of the classrooms. Our communities feel the impacts of our energy decisions and climate.”

The study adds to a growing body of analysis suggesting that the way climate change is taught to students — both at the K-12 and collegiate level — tends to minimize some of the most crucial components of climate science, like the scientific consensus around the issue. According to a 2016 survey conducted by researchers at Penn State University and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), nearly two-thirds of teachers either teach that climate change is “likely due to natural causes” or is an unsettled science, something that runs counter to the 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists who agree climate change is caused by human activity.

Adding to the lack of accurate climate science in schools is the fact that, in recent years, conservative climate-denying groups have actively engaged in a climate misinformation campaign targeting teachers.

In May of 2017, the Heartland Institute — which counts the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil among its donors — mailed 25,000 copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, along with an accompanying DVD, to science teachers around the country. The book, which Heartland hopes to send to every science teacher in the country, encourages teachers to tell students that there is a “vibrant debate taking place among scientists” about climate change.

A number of states have also considered limiting what climate science can be taught in public schools, largely under the guise of encouraging “academic freedom” for instructors. In 2017, Idaho became the first state to legislatively remove climate science from its statewide science standards, though those references were returned this year when the Idaho Senate Education Committee voted to adopt science standards that included teaching climate change.

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Still, states like Texas and West Virginia have successfully restricted the kind of science that can be taught in public schools through their boards of education. And last year, nine states considered legislative measures that would have restricted the kind of science that could be taught in public schools, though Alabama was the only state to successfully move its legislation through both state chambers.