Given its potentially catastrophic consequences, it’s sometimes hard to understand why most Americans don’t see climate change as one of the country’s top public policy priorities. But Duke University’s Megan Mullin thinks she may have an explanation for the disconnect: the weather. According to a recent study, most Americans actually like the weather that climate change has brought so far. But the good times aren’t going to last.
The Allegheny Front: So how did you come to this conclusion that, in the 40 years we’ve known about climate change, most Americans experience of weather has been positive?
Megan Mullin: Well, we’re social scientists and we’re starting from what we know about the types of weather that people like. And, of course, people’s weather preferences vary: Some people like to wear sandals year round; some people want a snowfall every winter. But we wanted to find the average American’s preferences about weather. And we thought that where people choose to live is a good indication of the types of conditions that they like. So we went to the literature and economics about where people move. And so if we hold constant economic conditions and other factors that prompt people to move, then we can pull apart what additional impact weather conditions have.
What we know is that people are moving to places with warm winters and cooler, less humid summers. The next step was to find out what has happened to weather over the last 40 years in the places where people live in the United States. So we collected 40 years of daily weather data and attached those weather conditions to counties, and considered counties more heavily if they were more populous. And what we found was over the last 40 years, 80 percent of Americans are living in counties that have experienced weather conditions that are improving. That’s what we’re calling “pleasant” weather.
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AF: So what do these findings have to say about how people are responding to global warming?
MM: Well, our previous work—and the work of other social scientists—shows that people’s experiences with weather in the short term have an impact on their perceptions of climate change. When it’s warmer outside, people are more likely to believe that the planet is warming. What we don’t know is how these cumulative experiences over longer periods of time are affecting people’s attitudes. But we make the case that certainly having this experience of more pleasant weather over time isn’t lending an urgency to people’s response to this problem. For most of us, being able to cook hot dogs outside on the grill on a January day is a lovely experience.
AF: So it’s not motivating us to make changes to our lifestyles or push for policy changes.
MM: That’s exactly right. We know that Americans are not responding to climate change with the urgency that scientists are telling us the problem demands. And we also know that when people think about climate change, what they’re thinking about are things like global warming or weather. So they’re perceiving that climate change means accumulated changes in weather. And those accumulated changes, for most Americans, are making the weather more pleasant than it was before.
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AF: That’s definitely the case here in the Pittsburgh region, where we’ve experienced a lot of that milder weather. But there are places that are experiencing extremes as a result of climate change. So how can that factor into our attitudes on climate change?
MM: So, climate extremes are not something we could account for in this study. And, in fact, the message we take away from our research is we need to be talking to the public more about these climate extremes. Climate scientists tell us those are the changes in weather that are really going to have the most substantial impact in terms of economic losses and in terms of human lives. So it’s these extreme shifts—like floods and droughts and sea-level rise—that are potentially the biggest concern. So we need to help the public understand climate change through the lens of these extreme events and not through the lens of everyday weather.
AF: And, of course, the science shows that this pleasant weather that many of us are experiencing is not going to continue anyway.
MM: Even if we’re focusing on everyday weather, what climate forecasts tell us about future warming is that the seasonal changes won’t be the same as what we’ve experienced already. The reason we have experienced this increase in pleasantness is because we’ve had these warmer winters without paying the price of hotter summers. But looking forward, what we will experience is much hotter summers, and those are not what the American public likes.
Megan Mullin is an associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University. Her paper about the public’s perception of weather and climate change was published in the journal Nature. This story is part of our partnership with iSeeChange—an online almanac of weather and climate where people post photos, observations and questions about what they notice outside. If you see things out there that surprise you, post them to iSeeChange.org. We’ll help you dig up some answers.