It's So Nice Out, No One Is Worrying About Climate Change

For now...
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Climate change could be making the weather in America more pleasant -- at least for now.

That's bad news in the long run, though. Balmier days, even if they won't last, could prevent people from taking climate change as seriously as they should, according to a new study.

Over the last 40 years, average winter temperatures have increased, while average summer temperatures have stayed more or less the same. Now, nearly 80 percent of Americans live in regions with nicer weather than they used to have, write the Duke University and New York University researchers, who looked at county-level weather statistics from 1974 to 2013.

Using existing data on people's weather preferences, the study found that the kinds of weather Americans have been experiencing, especially warmer winters, are exactly the kinds of weather people like. "That literature is quite clear,” Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke, told The Huffington Post. “The typical American prefers more temperate weather.”

By the end of the century, however, 90 percent of Americans will live in places with weather they don’t like, researchers found. The winters will be hot, and the summers will be broiling.

But it's the weather today, not weather 80 years from now, that shapes people's beliefs about climate change, according to Mullin.

“If you ask Americans what they think when they hear 'climate change,' they’ll say global warming and weather,” Mullin said. “People are thinking of daily weather patterns as the leading consequence of climate change.”

And when winters are mild and summers are tolerable, people don’t have a huge reason to care about climate change, according to researchers. That's because people's use their daily experiences of the weather -- not infrequent experiences of extreme weather events -- to form opinions about the climate, according to Mullin.

“[Nice weather] doesn’t motivate people to be more concerned about climate change,” Mullin said.

Political leaders aren’t helping people shake that view. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an ardent climate change denier, in 2015 famously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to argue that the unusually cold February weather proved global warming isn't actually happening. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, continues to deny the existence of climate change, as does Ted Cruz, Trump's main rival in the race for the GOP nomination.

Major floods rocked southeastern Texas in April.
Major floods rocked southeastern Texas in April.
Handout . / Reuters

Extreme weather events are becoming more and more common in the U.S., and critics of the Duke and NYU study question the authors' finding that weather in the U.S. is improving.

Mullin said those criticisms misunderstand the research, which only looked at how people experience weather on a day-to-day basis, not how they experience extreme weather events. The problem, she noted, is that people tend to be more influenced by day-to-day weather changes than by intense, but infrequent, disasters.

"When the population thinks about climate change, they’re thinking more about weather than extreme events,” Mullin said.

“If you show [researchers] a map of the warmest January on record, we view that with alarm,” Mullin continued. “But the public’s not receiving that message with alarm. They’re receiving it with memories of easy commutes and sunshine-filled days.”

Mullin said she hopes the new study will encourage people to start taking the more extreme effects climate change more seriously, even if they don’t feel them yet.