Commentary: School textbooks need to highlight the seriousness of climate change

Commentary: School textbooks need to highlight the seriousness of climate change

Some textbooks used in American schools curricula still suggest that global warming and climate change are myths, say three observers.

NEW YORK: Back in 2007, the world’s foremost body charged with assessing climate change stated with “very high confidence” that humans were a primary driver of climate change.

But you may not get the message that humans are responsible for climate change if you peered into some of the most popular US high school curriculum materials produced in the following years.

Many school materials back then did not communicate the scientific consensus that human activity was a major driver of climate change. That was one of the major findings of our line-by-line analysis of five science textbooks, four social studies textbooks and eight sets of supplemental curricular materials produced in the five years after the 2007 report. 

These 17 resources – all designed for US high school classrooms – were selected based on their widespread use so that we could best understand the climate change-related content seen by the greatest number of US students.

We found that many American curricular materials communicate a skewed or incomplete view of the seriousness, scope and cause of global climate change. In addition, these resources present a small range of options for addressing the problem.


Nine resources in our study did reflect the scientific consensus that human activity is a major driver of climate change, but we found that another six – including several science textbooks – were hesitant, communicating uncertainty about the conclusions expressed in the 2007 landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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At current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC report finds with "high
At current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC report finds with "high confidence", we will zoom past the 1.5C marker around 2040 (Photo: AFP/SPENCER PLATT)

For instance, one earth science textbook published in 2010 says that “researchers are trying to determine if the (temperature) increase is a natural variation or the result of human activities”.

Similarly, one geography textbook published in 2012 states that 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,” this particular textbook states. 

Others claim that the evidence for global warming is inconclusive.

Such messages suggest that humans may not be responsible for climate change – and that global warming itself could be a myth. These ideas were common in some of the curricula we examined. 

Two sets of supplemental materials directly challenge the idea that human activities cause climate change, with one calling this notion “far from settled”.

These curricula helped shape the views of young Americans who are now in their 20s. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a good chance many of these materials are still in use now, given that some school teachers have access only to ageing textbooks.


Beyond the fact that some publishers hedged when it came to the cause of global climate change, we also found that they provided limited content about the impact of climate change. 

12 of 17 curricular resources made little mention of extreme weather events, such as droughts and hurricanes.

Only two of the resources we examined had more than five sentences about the growing challenge of access to fresh drinking water. About half ignored the issue altogether. 

When materials did explore the impacts of climate change, they often portrayed these problems as quite distant – for example, affecting Alaska and northern Canada but not the mainland US.

Hurricane Michael
Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida, on Oct 10 as a catastrophic Category 4 storm. (Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal)

Some materials elaborated on how such impacts could affect countries, but many provided only vague information about these topics.


The materials in our study focused almost entirely on mitigation strategies, such as energy conservation. This is significant because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other leading scientific organisations agree that addressing global warming and its impacts will also require adaptation – and perhaps geo-engineering.

Since adaptation strategies, such as modifying land use and developing drought-resistant crops, will be helpful for coping with the impacts described above, we believe school materials should explore these ideas.

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However, many materials focused only on individual responses – such as turning off lights and driving less – instead of collective or policy responses. 

Social studies materials more frequently highlighted the need for government action, but we are concerned about how much exposure students get to policy solutions when they are in science class.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other leading scientists have made clear, society needs to take substantial action to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

A scene from this month's 'Rise For Climate' event in San Francisco, which took place
A scene from the 'Rise For Climate' event in San Francisco, which took place as as a monster hurricane bore down on the US eastern seaboard (Photo: AFP/Amy Osborne)

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It’s true that some states in the US are working to improve climate change education and to convey the seriousness of the issue to young people. 

For instance, as part of a major climate science initiative in Washington state, approximately US$1 million is being awarded through competitive grants to nonprofit community-based organisations to work with school districts “to build student understanding and problem solving around local environmental challenges".

Researchers at Indiana University are training teachers in the “science of climate change and its predicted impact on the state".

It will take these kinds of efforts and more to prepare young people for future challenges. 

There’s still time, but schools should make sure that curricular materials communicate what scientists have been saying for well over a decade now – that is, humans are responsible for climate change, the impacts will be serious, and we need to respond wisely.

Brett Levy is assistant professor of educational theory and practice at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Lauren Collet-Gildard is a graduate Student, and Social Studies Educator at the same university. Casey Meehan is sustainability coordinator at Western Technical College. 

A version of this commentary first appeared on The Conversation. Read it here.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)