There is, of course, no single right answer to this query, and it is an ethical or existential concern as much as a scientific one. But when I posed it to the scientists who encounter climate change’s consequences firsthand—in the planet’s expanding deserts, deluged coasts, and bleached coral reefs—they said that it was fine to take the good with the bad when it came to upheavals in Earth’s long-term climate.
Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, told me that people shouldn’t hesitate to enjoy unseasonably warm days, whether or not they are caused by climate change.
“It’s a good example of how all of the symptoms of a changing climate are not negative. And if there is something good, then enjoying it doesn’t make [climate change] any better or worse than it would be otherwise,” she said.
Rather, the warm days might prepare people to notice other shifts in how they experience the weather. “As it gets warmer, the negative impacts outweigh the positive impacts,” she said. “This will first look like hotter summers, pests moving northward, and our air-conditioning and water bill going up. Having these unusual days that we really notice, it makes us more aware of how other things are changing, too.”
For the climate-concerned, this is an encouraging theory of change—and it fits with a body of research that suggests people experiencing unusual warmth are more likely to tell pollsters they believe in global warming.
But a study published last year in Nature should make advocates pause. It found that, for the vast majority of Americans, the weather became more favorable and pleasant from 1974 to 2013. Over all, winters have gotten generally warmer and more pleasant for “virtually all Americans,” while summers have not yet become scorching and oppressively humid.
This change has occurred on a shocking scale: On the “pleasantness index” used by the study, Boston in 2013 was as favorable as New York City was in 1976; and present-day St. Louis is nicer than D.C. or Baltimore four decades hence.
This study stands apart from the rest of the climate literature for several reasons. It examines neither how climate change is shaping the weather—it does not pull out a climate signal from the 40 years of weather change, only looking at weather overall—and it does not treat the entire expanse of the country’s land surface area equally. Rather, it wants to know how Americans experience the weather, so its analysis gives more weight to highly populated counties.
The study also omits incidences of extreme weather. Those have increased during the study period, and they will be one of the earliest ways Americans in the Lower 48 experience the consequences of climate change.
“While we’re hearing over and over again that climate change is something we should fear, most people are experiencing it in a way that’s really quite comfortable,” says Megan Mullin, a political scientist at Duke University and one of the authors of the study. “What I take away from this is really a lesson for scientists. My Twitter stream is filled with these maps, over and over again, showing departures from historically average temperatures. In my mind, [that kind of messaging] is not going to motivate the public to treat this as a top priority.”