Science

It Doesn’t Matter If You Think It’s Nice Out

Our understanding of global climate change needs to move beyond our personal experiences of weather.

basking in sun.
Stop measuring climate change by the weather you experience personally.

oneinchpunch/Thinsktock

It’s raining in Washington, D.C., as I write this, drops tapping out a steady beat that recalls the rhythms of my Oregon childhood. There’s something familiar about this weather, whatever its imperfections. Meanwhile, 1,100 miles to the southwest, a storm system threatens Dallas with tornadoes and massive hailstones. And in Maine, record April snowfalls blanketed the region just days ago. From my desk, though, these anomalies seem impossibly distant—problems that I might read about later but certainly won’t experience.

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I am not alone in my easy ignorance. Research published recently in the journal Nature proposes that 40 years of seemingly pleasant weather may be blinding many Americans to the realities of global climate change. Explaining their work in the New York Times, the two researchers, Patrick J. Egan and Megan Mullin, write, “80 percent of Americans now find themselves living in counties where the weather is more pleasant than it was four decades ago.” For most of us, the winters are milder, while the summers remain temperate. Happy with the way things are, Egan and Mullin propose, we have little reason to consider that the clement weather we experience today may evolve into a harsher climate down the road.

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Some have already quibbled with Egan and Mullin’s findings. Joacim Rocklöv, for example, has objected that even if the weather is on average more mild, specific instances of extreme weather still hold disproportionate sway on individuals’ perceptions. Likewise, the atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth writes in the Conversation that the original study’s premises are flawed—in assessing the data, the researchers averaged many days of weather to reach a number they could assess as more mild, negating some extreme fluctuations that would be more likely considered unpleasant than not. “After all,” Trenberth points out, “no one experiences long-term average weather, but we do increasingly experience weather extremes and their impacts on our health, safety and well-being.”

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While Trenberth makes a compelling case for the lousiness of the weather, he comes at his interlocutors sideways. Egan and Mullin aren’t proposing that the weather actually is getting better, only that the current weather in many places tends to match many people’s preferences much of the time. They cite a prior study that suggests longer-lasting temperature fluctuations can affect the people who witness these fluctuations’ belief in global warming. Another paper concludes that “present temperature abnormalities are given undue weight … thereby increasing belief in and concern for global warming.”

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Weather can be instructive, then, but Egan and Mullin want us to recognize that weather that seems to be good may lull us into a false sense of security, dissuading us from acting until it’s too late to make a difference. Furthermore, the alarmist rhetoric scientists currently employ in their attempts to raise concern about climate change fails because it does not “correspond with how people actually experience the weather,” Egan and Mullin write in Nature. Indeed, they ultimately agree with Trenberth, concluding in their New York Times article, “A focus on extreme weather events … may be a better strategy” than dwelling on mean temperatures if scientists hope to change public perceptions.

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It may, however, be that weather—mild or extreme—has never been the right lens through which to consider climate change at all.

Trenberth is right, of course, that for many, the weather only truly registers when it is unavoidably bad, but even then it does not seem to persuade us to do something about it. There’s likely more at play here than the assumption of selfishness that underlies Egan and Mullin’s work: Weather is inherently confined by the local and immediate conditions of space and time, a question of what we perceive rather than what is. To talk about the weather is to talk about about where we are, what we’re feeling and experiencing, and not about the world that exists beyond our narrowly bounded horizons. In the same way that climate is long-term and weather is short-term, climate change is a global development, while weather names a more local and personal set of experiences. In that sense, focusing on it may actually blind us to the larger stakes.

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Compounding this problem, even when the weather is ugly, we tend to speak of it in terms that we normally reserve for the beautiful, its conceptual vocabulary closer to aesthetic appreciation than to scientific observation. That may be because its local qualities encourage us to set a frame around it, separating it from the climatological systems that give it form. Cordoned off from everything beyond, weather easily gives itself over to banality: When we babble to a stranger about how warm it is or how much snow we’re getting, we’re talking about what’s simply here. It’s the one thing we can be sure we share, which allows it to serve as the base line of our collective humanness. 

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This anthropocentric understanding of the weather vastly predates the beginnings of the Anthropocene. “In a symbolic system that is now so familiar as to be intuitive,” Kathryn Schulz writes, “atmospheric conditions came to stand in for the human condition.” As John Ruskin—an important touchstone for Schulz—shows in a seminal 1856 essay on the problem of “pathetic fallacy,” we tend to attribute human feelings to all manner of natural phenomenon, from falling leaves to churning sea foam. Such depictions are the anthropomorphization of the broader world.

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Even in such poetic company, the weather stands out, welcoming figures of feeling. It is, to use a term that Ruskin hated, unusually susceptible to subjective states, largely because it is what surrounds us. Hence the familiar clichés that the sky is weeping when it rains or the premise that the sun smiles down upon us as it shines. Weather, in other words, is a convenient foil for our own feelings—just as it’s an easy symbol for the things that make us feel. In that respect, when it touches us most, it touches us most personally, potentially shutting out the wider world in the process.

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As Schulz shows, with the rise of modern meteorology, authors and artists gradually distanced themselves from these analogies. And though Ruskin’s critique of pathetic fallacy may have played a part in that shift, the change was mostly technological. Schulz writes, “It is harder to study things in the air than things on the ground, harder to study things that change rapidly than things that change slowly, if at all, and nearly impossible to study a global system such as the weather in the absence of any kind of of real-time communication.” But in the Industrial Revolution’s wake, these limitations began to dissolve like so much factory smoke into the clouds above.

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There is a certain apt irony in poets’ abandonment of pathetic fallacy: The very technologies that helped them understand the broader world were twinned to those shaping it more and more aggressively than ever before. Climate change is, of course, a kind pathetic fallacy come to life, our own contempt for nature reflected back to us in a distorted and grotesque form. It is what happens when we leave our mark on the world but deny we’ve touched it.

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As the world became available to us, we began to recognize just how little the weather concerned itself with us. Conscious of the whole, but unable to take it in, we convinced ourselves that our small actions couldn’t possibly affect this newly revealed behemoth. This is the perception that allowed us to kill off the passenger pigeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—surely something that numerous could never fall victim to humans, we must have thought. Even today, as evidence of climate change accumulates, we struggle with the same issue: This massive problem that we have most certainly wrought still feels wholly outside of our control. And with that wider view, the concept of one day’s weather in one place feels almost amusingly insignificant.

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When we encourage people to look to the weather for evidence of climate change, we’re inadvertently asking them to retreat from the pursuit of a more global understanding. Thomas Levenson points to Donald Trump, who recently acknowledged that he thinks “there’s a change in the weather” only to add that he’s “not a great believer in man-made climate change.” For Levenson, such seeming contradictions emblematize a typical stratagem, whereby denialists focus on a single data point at the expense of the more meaningful set from which it derives, the exact opposite of the averaging approach Egan and Mullin invite.

All of this is to say that dwelling on climatological extremes may be no more effective than focusing on averages, at least when we’re asking people to look at their own lives. Even when they happen to you, tornadoes, hailstorms, and record snowfalls still feel like isolated incidents. The real story is in the lines that connect them—but most of us cannot make these connections on our own. Even meteorologists often don’t—both because climate change, while scientific fact, is a controversial topic on network television and, more tellingly, because meteorologists themselves have a difficult time accurately connecting weather events to climate change.  

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If weather matters, it does so only to a point: No reasonable person would deny that many of the outliers we’ve witnessed in recent decades tell a frightening story. But the actual stories we end up telling aren’t always the right ones, not least of all because it’s too easy to focus on the wrong details or to otherwise neglect their scientific significance. For example, in 2015, many people mistakenly attributed unseasonably balmy Christmas holiday weather to global warming rather than to its actual cause, El Niño. That this anomaly spurred a collective panic over whether it was finally time to freak out about climate change pinpoints the necessity of connecting the dots between climate and weather in the first place. Never mind that climate scientists have been asking us to care for decades; only when it threatens to deny us our white Christmases do we pay attention, even if the frame is all wrong. And when similar weather patterns continue months later, we’re less inclined to heed them, a fact that dramatizes futility of such isolated reference points.

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Making sense of the weather and what it means about our changing climate may entail studying it in aggregate, attending to patterns rather than the flux of feelings. We might, for example, look to the group of Shinto priests who spent centuries recording the timing of ice melt on Lake Suwa, inadvertently recording the progression of global warming in the process, not that they knew it. Or we might simply strive to see beyond our own immediate contexts, remembering that even when they’re instructive, local weather patterns are puzzle pieces rather than pictures.

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Sitting at my desk, listening to the rain fall, I find myself thinking of the astronaut Scott Kelly, who, as others have before him, claims that looking down at Earth amplified his environmentalist commitments. If we hope to take climate change seriously, we need, I think, to get past the phatic banality of weather. However important such chatter may be here and now, it only obscures the weight of our endless elsewheres—those there and thens that exist beyond the borders of our individual experiences. There is, of course, no weather in space, but from the temperature-controlled modules of the International Space Station, Kelly could see the many dramas unfolding below, not just the storms but the systems in which they build. We cannot all rocket up to gain this vantage, but we can attempt to take a cue from his revelations, looking beyond the weather we are enjoying today, here, to better understand what the whole globe will endure tomorrow, everywhere.

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