Climate Change's Home in Introductory Biology

Climate change is one of the most pressing and urgent issues in our world today, and it's one that students should learn about.

Jim Morris · Mar, 2023

climate change in biology

How Life Works author James Morris explains why climate change should be included in introductory biology textbooks, resources, and curricula.

Climate change is one of the most pressing and urgent issues in our world today, and it's one that students should learn about. It poses significant risks to human health and well-being, as well as to the natural systems that sustain life on Earth. It’s a topic we should not shy away from in classrooms and course materials.

Therefore, I read with interest Aliya Uteuova’s article in The Guardian “US college biology textbooks failing to address climate change, study says.” In the article, Uteuova reports on a study by Rabiya Arif Ansari and Jennifer Landin at North Carolina State University. They examined climate change coverage in introductory biology textbooks for higher education and found that it is inadequate, decreasing, and often relegated to the end of the textbook.

I couldn’t agree more with their findings and the need for increased coverage of this critical area. This is why Biology: How Life Works is an exception to this trend. In writing HLW, my co-authors and I highlighted climate change ever since the first edition, with even more coverage of this topic in our most recent 4th Edition. Notably, HLW was not included among the textbooks examined in the study.

For example, in Chapter 1, we outline six grand themes that help students see the big picture.. One of our grand themes is human impacts, which is emerging as a key concept in biology. Human impacts range from climate change to habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, and overharvesting, to name just a few. By introducing them upfront, from the very start, we draw students’ attention to the collective and often destructive impact we are having on the planet. And, in contrast to many other textbooks and frameworks in biology, HLW is one of the few that highlights human impacts as a 21st century core concept in biology.

Throughout the ecology section, we return to the subject of climate change. It is discussed at length in the chapter on biogeochemical cycles. We examine it again when discussing populations, species interactions, and ecosystems. We have an entire chapter on the human hand in environment and biodiversity, showing not only the latest data on how and to what degree climate has changed, but why it has changed, what its actual and projected consequences will be, and what we can do as citizens. Possible solutions and reasons for hope are also recommended by the authors of the study.

In HLW, we have eight cases that highlight current research and issues, such as cancer, the human microbiome, and the challenges of feeding a growing human population. In the fourth edition, we included a new case – climate change. The cases highlight important issues, while also tying together a set of chapters. In this way, the cases motivate students and help them make connections among different topics. They end with a set of questions that challenge students to find solutions. The case on climate change also includes a podcast, where an author interviews a scientist doing research in this area.

Finally, a photograph of a family of polar bears graces the cover of our most recent edition. The photograph was captured by award-winning photographer Paul Nicklen in Spitsbergen, Norway. As summers grow longer, polar bears, like the ones on the cover, are increasingly threatened. So the cover itself is a call to action on climate change.

In bringing students’ attention to climate change, we are not just highlighting a current issue. We are also emphasising the central importance of the carbon cycle to life on Earth. Of all the topics in introductory biology, the carbon cycle is one of the organising principles that we want students to learn and understand. Climate change then provides a lens through which students critically examine the short-term (biological) and long-term (geologic) carbon cycle, as well as the many places they intersect and our participation in it.

Introductory biology should provide a foundation for students, while also helping them to understand the world around them. As one of the most critical issues of our time, climate change should certainly find a home in introductory biology textbooks, resources, and curricula.

James Morris, Brandeis University

Discover more about Dr. James Morris and his passion for teaching biology and sparking wonder in students.