This time last year, the United Kingdom was in the grip of a wave of freezing wind from Siberia called the “Beast from the East.” Temperatures in Greater London hovered around 0°C (30°F)—unusual for the area. Panicked Britons emptied supermarkets and stockpiled supplies for their very own armageddon.
It was difficult to reconcile that vision of London with the city I strolled through this week. On a Tuesday in late February, it was almost 20°C (68°F) and the city was sunny and warm to an unseasonable degree. Cherry blossom trees were blooming and insects were buzzing about. For a minute, I felt like I was in an advertisement for anti-allergy medication, or maybe an alternate universe. Either way, it’s not what February should feel like, and everybody knows it.
While no single unusually warm day can be directly attributed to climate change, scientists do know that the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is raising global average temperatures. As the UK’s Met Office said, this year’s atypical winter “does fit a pattern of warming.”
This phenomenon isn’t unique to the UK. Around the world, people are experiencing milder winters as a result of changing weather patterns. According to a 2016 study, “80% of Americans live in counties that are experiencing more pleasant weather than they did four decades ago.”
This creates a moral dilemma that is unique to the 21st century. How are we supposed to feel about the nice weather outside when we know it’s tied to climate change? Or, as Robinson Meyer put it in The Atlantic, “If we think the future consequences of climate change will be very bad, are we allowed to savor them now?”
The hottest UK February on record
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that “people will judge future states of the world that fit with their experience to be more likely.” In other words, if you feel unusually warm, you will be more likely to say you believe in global warming. That’s probably why this past week’s warm weather caused many people to feel anxious and search for answers related to global warming in the UK.
The public concern about climate change was especially visible on social media: Take, for example, the reactions to a tweet from BBC Weather announcing “the first time we’ve seen over 20°C in winter”:
Social media users castigating the BBC for its “flippant” tone and sarcastically declaring the end of the world on Twitter may be exhibiting symptoms of what some have called “climate change distress” and “ecological grief.” The consequences of these emotions can be serious. A 2017 study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) and other groups found that “Worry about actual or potential impacts of climate change can lead to stress that can build over time and eventually lead to stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders and depression.” In the APA’s 2018 report (pdf), 51% of US adults said that climate change and global warming were causing them to feel stressed. That proportion rose to 58% among Gen Z adults.
Still, it’s human nature to enjoy sunny days. And therein lies the cognitive dissonance that can tug our emotions in opposite directions: We know that global warming isn’t good for the planet in the long run, but it’s still nice to wander around in February wearing a light jacket.
“That’s a fundamental fact about the world around us,” says Guy Kahane, a philosopher and the director of studies at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. “It’s kind of causally messy in a way that good stuff and bad stuff go together in all sorts of ways.”
The case against guilt
Quartz spoke with several climate scientists and environmental philosophers who said that, while we should definitely feel anxious about climate change, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the warm weather outside when it happens to be nice. Resisting good cheer won’t change the reality of climate change.
“We benefit all the time from injustice: The only thing worse would be to have the injustice and no benefits,” said Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. “If you only experience these warm days as the harbingers of climate disaster, that will just make your life and everyone else’s life even worse than it’s likely to be under climate change.”
As atmospheric scientist Katherine Hayhoe told The Atlantic, the nice weather is “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.”
Fighting your feelings
But Kahane says that we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. “There are lots of things we can’t change,” he told Quartz, “but it doesn’t mean we can just feel towards it whatever is easy for us.”
The other school of thought is that we shouldn’t let ourselves enjoy the nice weather outside too much, since feeling upbeat could deepen our tendency toward self-serving behavior. Our natural tendency is to ignore things that could threaten our happiness. That’s dangerous because it can lull us into thinking that the negative consequences of climate change are far off and we don’t need to worry about them just yet, according to Paul Thagard, a Canadian philosopher who works on cognitive science and the philosophy of science and medicine at the University of Waterloo.
“I live in Canada, where global warming isn’t such a bad thing because winters here are pretty brutal,” he said. But “people need to be able to, somehow, integrate these long-term projections … and see that, just because it’s good in this moment, that doesn’t mean that things are going to be good in the long-run.” Or, as The Guardian editorial board recently wrote, “It is no longer permissible to pretend that ice-creams in February are a quirk of nature.”
Springing to action
If your instinct is to enjoy the good weather, the important thing is to remember to take steps to combat climate change. Renee Lertzman, an environmental psychologist and consultant, said that while there is “a sense of deep despair and grief around people’s experience of changes in weather,” feeling guilty about feeling happy is counter-productive.
“People need to feel that they are empowered and that how they’re feeling, all that conflict, is actually okay,” she said. “You get out of the guilt and the shame stuff and you … reflect on Okay, what’s important to me, how do I want to respond?”
That might involve making individual changes, such as eating less meat, using renewable energy, or bicycling to work instead of taking a car. It might mean voting for political candidates who prioritize environmentally friendly policies. And it might mean talking more about climate change within your network, as atmospheric scientist Hayhoe recommends in her recent TED Talk. While 93% of Britons (pdf) believe that climate change is happening, a surprisingly low proportion of them (36%) believe that it is entirely or mainly caused by human activity, and an even smaller proportion (25%) say they are very worried about it.
As a recent study showed, human beings get used to the changes brought about by climate change after about five years. So if reminding ourselves that we shouldn’t be able to swim outside in February is what it takes to spur us to action, perhaps the nice weather will have served a purpose. As Kahane explained, “If you feel upset about something but don’t do anything about it then that changes the character of the emotion; it … becomes not truly genuine.”
For my own part, my interviews with scientists and philosophers convinced me that I don’t need to stop myself from enjoying this mild winter. But I will also acknowledge my feelings of discomfort, and use them as an incentive to do my part to move the needle on climate change—while basking in the warm, temporary, and undeniably strange winter sun.