Are university textbooks forgetting the climate?  The answer of three Italian teachers

Are university textbooks forgetting the climate? The answer of three Italian teachers

To open the debate was one US studypublished by Nature and then taken up with a long article also by the Washington Post: despite the climate emergency being there for all to see, college biology textbooks published in the United States in 2010 had less content on climate change compared to those published in the 2000s. Having sifted through dozens of biology textbooks that have been widely used over the past 50 years, the US researchers point out that, even if the space dedicated to the impacts of climate change has increased, the sections dedicated to solutions.

The US university system and environmental sensitivity differ significantly from the European ones and especially from the Italian ones, but it is legitimate wonder if similar gaps are also traceable in our country. Three university professors who hold important positions in institutes and associations dealing with climate change take stock of how this subject is treated in textbooks and in Italian universities.

The conservation biologist

Roberto Cazzola Gatti teaches biodiversity and biological conservation at the BiGeA of the University of Bologna, is a member of the IUCN and of the Society for Conservation Biology of the Konrad Lorenz Institute. The biologist outlines a worrying situation regarding university textbooks, which derives from the evaluation system of researchers’ publications. The problem, for Cazzolla Gatti, is wider than just dealing with climate change.

“In Italy the situation is similar to that verified by the US study – says Cazzolla Gatti – unfortunately the conservation biology textbooks available in Italian are old and often remain on the surface, they have no insights. The main problem is that even if climate change is mentioned, it is never mentioned cause reduction measures. In particular, but I observe this in general when the theme is addressed not only in books, if we speak of causes, the emphasis is placed on energy transition and on fossil fuels, while talking about the impact of agriculture and livestock seems taboo. In the same way, the impact of lifestyles and food production is never mentioned and very little is found mitigation and adaptation“.

The teacher then underlines that in Italy there is a strong connection with US texts: “Our teachers are not motivated to write teaching texts, because they do not count as useful publications for a university career, so often we only have translations of foreign texts, Americans in the first place. For publishers it is an unprofitable effort to take care of the printing, so we end up with texts that are at least a decade old”.


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Then there is the problem of point of view. The US and European realities are very different: above all when it comes to adaptation, or even more so biological conservation, the highly anthropized territories of Italy need different interventions than the United States. “In fact, the examples provided are very American-centric – agrees Cazzolla Gatti – moreover, the Italian ecology and biology texts treat little of the new developments in evolutionary biology, because the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the prevalence of the fittest is always followed. Instead, genetics and the study of the new cooperative evolutionary processes underline mutualism, symbiosis and intraspecific cooperation. In short, the US texts are greatly influenced by the political-economic aspects and do not delve into the central theme of overpopulation and consumption”.

The climate scientist

Approach the problem from another point of view Donatella Spano, professor of agrometeorology and ecophysiology at the University of Sassari, first female president of the Italian Climate Society in 2015, member of the “Strategic Board” of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change. In fact, Spano emphasizes the need for the scientific community to broaden her knowledge and translate it into effective publications, which go well beyond university textbooks.


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“Certainly more can and must be done at all levels – says the scientist – but in general we can say that sensitivity and awareness of climate change are increasing. The scientific community is committed to expanding, generating and providing knowledge based on scientific results, not only highly specialized publications, but information and knowledge products that can be used for teaching in universities and schools. Reports, manuals, guidelines, web platforms, games, videos, infographics, are also customized resources for target groups, with the aim of promoting the dissemination of solid information from a scientific point of view”.

For the agrometeorologist, in short, even if the university textbooks are lacking, the teachers have a lot of material at their disposal to re-elaborate in a personal way. “The current teaching approach requires a personalized intermediation of knowledge in increasingly interactive contexts with respect to the top-down and unidirectional administration of information. – underlines Spano – The use of the manual or textbook, in the classic sense , is the starting point for the teacher, who can then build his own lessons on the scientific findings contained in sector publications, or summarized in specific volumes and reports”.


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“In a recent study of scientific production related to adaptation to climate change it is clear a trend of gigantic growth in the number of jobs which increased from 1,188 publications (10.3%) in the period 1978-2010 to 4,035 papers (35.1%) between 2011 and 2015 up to 6,283 (54.6%) in the years 2016-2020. – concludes the agrometeorologist – There is a concrete commitment from the scientific community to work in a multidisciplinary research and teaching perspective, but it is also true that there is a need for more structured teaching in relation to climate sciences, because these make use of the contribution of scientists from various disciplinary sectors and who use climatic information for their research (climatologists, physicists, chemists, geographers, agronomists, economists, etc.). From this idea, new courses of study can be born aimed at new professions, which will need new textbooks”.

The marine biologist

Also Robert Danovaroprofessor of marine biology and ecology at the Polytechnic University of Marche, until July 2022 president of the “Anton Dohrn” zoological station, member of the SEA commission (environmental impact assessment) of the Ministry of the environment and energy security, focuses more on the overall teaching strategy than on the textbooks used. “I have some reservations about the American study from which we started to talk about the Italian situation – he observes – because it analyzes the number of sentences, while their content should also be evaluated”.

“In my opinion, the problem is another – explains Danovaro – and it concerns the teachers. Those who teach are often not prepared, because they have not studied what has been made available by the scientific community for years and therefore have difficulty transmitting what they do not know. More that the study of textbooks – adds the academic – had struck me by another research which already in 2016 had underlined how, although most US science teachers include climate science in their courses, they have insufficient understanding of the phenomenawhich can hinder effective teaching.”

“A bit like what happens in public debate – concludes Danovaro – many teachers repeat scientifically unsupported claims in class. Greater attention to the knowledge, but also to the values, of teachers is essential. However, if we are not limited to university textbooks, it should be emphasized that in Italy in compulsory schools the environment and climate change are treated much better than in the past. As for university textbooks, I can say that just recently the publisher of my marine biology textbook asked me to add parts on climate change”.

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