WIStainability
Forwarding sustainability and resilience in Wisconsin and beyond
Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.
-Gary Snyder
  • Casey Meehan, PhD

How school textbooks perpetuate climate change myths

Updated: May 14, 2019

There is power in youth: especially, it turns out, in the ability to influence adults' views on climate change. Recent research published in Nature Climate Change by a team from North Carolina State University led by Danielle Lawson offers compelling evidence that parents grow more concerned about man-made climate change when their teens are taught the basics of the problem in school. Strikingly, the effect is even more pronounced with conservative parents.



This is the rare hopeful piece of news that fuels my work at the intersection of climate change and education. All the more reason to ensure our students are getting high quality climate change education that doesn't perpetuate some of the commonly held myths climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe writes about.


So how are we doing? Research I conducted and later refined with my colleagues Brett Levy and Lauren Collet-Gildard suggests that schools--or at least science and social studies textbooks widely used in US schools--are falling well short of preparing students to understand climate change and deliberate over what we should do about it.


C'mon, really?! Textbooks? Many of us only begrudgingly cracked open these oft maligned educational resources. Does the content of textbooks actually matter? In a word, yes.


Curricular materials, including textbooks, play a significant role in what teachers choose to teach and how they choose to do so. In other words, even if students aren’t reading the textbook, there is a good chance that the classroom curriculum reflects the contents of the text.


Moreover, (and this claim is entirely based on my experience, not any empirical research I'm familiar with), students often elevate the text as the authoritative source of content knowledge. If I got a dollar for every time I heard one of my students offer counter evidence that began with, "But the textbook says..." I'd have been a teacher that almost didn't need to take on a summer job to make ends meet.


With this in mind, my colleagues and I explored how global climate change is conceptualized in nine widely used U.S. high school social studies and science textbooks published between 2007-2012. For the most part, the textbooks we reviewed provide legitimacy to a number of the climate change myths @KHayhoe documents.


Scientific consensus behind climate change

One myth prevalent among the American public is that climate scientists are uncertain what is causing recent climate change. The reality is that over 97% of actively publishing climate scientists believe that recent climate change is happening and caused by human activity.


Textbooks tell a different story.


When can we expect to feel the impacts of climate change? Where in the world will be impacted? And what will the impacts be? Meh. Don’t know. But don’t worry unless you live in a polar climate, seems to be the prevailing message in most of the textbooks we analyzed.

While none of the textbooks we examined denied that global climate change exists, most of them conveyed scientific uncertainty as to why it is happening. For instance, one social studies book published in 2012 reads:

“Scientists do not all agree on the nature of global warming and its effects. Some claim that a natural cycle, not human activity, is causing rising temperatures. Others claim that the evidence for global warming is inconclusive and that it is too early to forecast future events.”


A science textbook from 2009 states outright, “...many scientists agree that global warming is occurring. They disagree, however, about what is causing this warming.”


The implication that scientists haven’t reached a consensus about the cause of global warming flies in the face of reality, even for books published 10 years ago. In 2007, at least one year before the publication of any of the textbooks we examined, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its 4th Assessment Report with a key takeaway being that the scientific community concluded—with over 90% confidence—that recent global warming is caused by human activity.


The impacts of climate change

Another myth the public tells itself is that climate change won't impact most of us in the United States, and even if it does, we won't feel the impacts for decades. The reality is climate change is already impacting people and ecosystems all over the United States in profound ways.


When can we expect to feel the impacts of climate change? Where in the world will be impacted? And what will the impacts be? Meh. Don’t know. But don’t worry unless you live in a polar climate, seems to be the prevailing message in most of the textbooks we analyzed.


When?

As to when humanity can expect to be impacted, nearly all textbooks we looked at lack even the most general of time frames. Instead, students encounter lines like, “if this trend continues, polar ice caps and mountain glaciers might melt,” and “Areas that now support agriculture could become deserts.” (Italics mine).


Where?

Textbooks included in our study nearly all perpetuate the myth that climate change won’t affect those of us in the contiguous U.S. by geographically distancing the intended audience, students in the U.S., from the these impacts. Rather, textbooks tended to highlight Arctic climes or islands half-way around the world from where our students sit. For example, in a section especially about human - environment interactions in North America, one textbook published in 2012 limits discussion of climate change impacts as a challenge for those in northern Canada and Alaska. Another expounds that global warming is happening at a “dramatic” pace in Western Siberia.

To be fair, some of the textbooks we reviewed do contain brief passages indicating the impacts of global climate change will be painful even for those in the U.S. An earth science text notes, for instance, that should the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt, New York City and low-lying states like Florida and Louisiana would be completely flooded. In the textbooks we analyzed, this type of prognosis is the exception, though, not the rule.


What?

Most textbooks in this study stuck to the bare basics of climate change impacts including rising temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation and sea level rise. Almost entirely ignored are the ramifications of these changes have on humanity: things like food and water security, mass human migration, deteriorating human health, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification and a litany of other disturbing consequences.


The point of this research was to understand how climate change is covered in some of the most widely-used social studies and science textbooks in US high schools. Even a study of textbooks published up to a dozen years ago is informative as school districts often use such materials for many years, given their significant cost to procure. But supposing a school district purchases new books every other year (they don't), there would still exist several years worth of students--now of voting age--directly exposed to climate change myths as a result of their formal education.


“No other sure foundation can be devised,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “for the preservation of freedom and happiness," than a an informed electorate, cultivated by a robust system of free, public education. What does climate misinformation transmitted by some of the most widely used textbooks mean, then, for our citizens' ability to deliberate important public policy about climate change or to elect leaders willing to address the issues at hand?


There are lots of things we still don’t know. We don’t know why these textbooks’ authors made the decisions to portray global climate change as they did. We don’t know how students internalized these messages. And we don’t know how textbooks published after 2012 address global climate change.


What we do know is that mainstream social studies and science textbooks, while not the creators of climate change myths, potentially play a role in perpetuating them.

Follow me

  • Instagram
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • LinkedIn - White Circle

© 2020 Casey R. Meehan