Instead of unbearable heat and apocalyptic freezing, Americans are actually experiencing ideal weather conditions thanks to climate change: milder winters, with only small increases in summer humidity. 80 percent of the US population is experiencing better weather than it did 40 years ago — and that's not great news for climate awareness, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The public's understanding of climate change is partially influenced by weather around them, making global warming seem like a low priority so long as there are fewer snowstorms and more sunny summer days. But "whereas weather patterns in recent decades have served as a poor source of motivation for Americans to demand a policy response to climate change, public concern may rise once people's everyday experiences of climate change effects start to become less pleasant," write Patrick Egan, a politics professor at New York University, and Megan Mullin, a professor of environmental politics at Duke University.
Twenty-five percent of Americans do not consider climate change a serious problem, according to Pew Research Center: the third highest rate of apathy behind Israel and Russia. So to successfully communicate the negative impacts of climate change to people enjoying its temporarily-pleasant effects, scientists need to call on more than just temperature data.
"The natural thing to do when communicating [the dangers of climate change] is to mention rising temperatures," Dr. Egan tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. "But what this study suggests is that that strategy needs to be modified because rising temperatures are happening, but they are happening at times of the year when Americans welcome them – which is probably not effective at sounding the alarm on climate change."
Egan and Dr. Mullin say America’s temperature bliss is short-lived. If greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, 88 percent of the US will experience weather in 2100 that is less preferable than weather today. In other words, says Egan, "There's not going to be winners and losers. Everyone's going to be a loser."
But America's climate change denial is caused by more than just nice weather.
"Most of the solutions to [climate change] require government intervention, and Americans are skeptical about what government can do to solve our problems – it's part of our political culture," Egan explains. "Also, unlike other advanced democracies, we have a real partisan and ideological divide on climate change."
According to a Pew Research survey from November, 68 percent of political liberals consider climate change a very serious problem, compared to 30 percent of their conservative counterparts. And while Europe also experiences ideological divides on climate change concern, their ideological divides are between 14 and 27 percent – far less than America's 38 percent difference.
"When scientists are putting out news that we have had the warmest winter on record, they are sounding an alarm – but the public isn't receiving it that way," Mullin tells the Monitor. "Scientists can only do so much. We know from a long line of research that political voices are more powerful than scientific voices in shaping public opinion."
So to effectively "sound the alarm" among the American public and unite the political elite, Egan and Mullin suggest shifting the focus to other downstream effects that are presently occurring without the same positive response as rising temperatures.
Warmer temperatures "are probably not the best focus to get the public concerned about such an important problem," Egan explains, since Americans consider them a plus. Instead, focus should be shifted to other negative effects like threatened food supply, increased range of insects, and rising seas, "where they are clearly unwelcome changes that average Americans can understand and they won't confuse as pleasant."