During America’s abnormally warm February, enjoying the 70-degree weather just didn’t feel right, many people said. They feared that the extreme conditions were a clear manifestation of human-caused climate change. And they felt guilty about it.
It’s true that we’re probably witnessing more extraordinarily warm winter days than ever before because of the greenhouse gases being spewed into the atmosphere. Average temperatures are on the rise, and we’re seeing many more records set for warm temperatures than cold.
In February, preliminary numbers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate 6,045 daily record highs were broken or tied, compared with 112 lows.
But feeling sad about it, while well-intended, is not necessary. Occasionally warm winter days are fortunate aspects of our climate, and their increase is one of few positive effects of climate change. As they’re destined to continue, we may well as well enjoy them while working purposefully toward climate change solutions.
Thaws are a natural and welcome part of the winter climate across most of the nation. Washington’s warmest February temperature on record of 83 degrees occurred on Feb. 25, 1930 — well before greenhouse gas concentrations had soared to present levels. Should Washingtonians living in 1930 not have taken pleasure in that day?
I understand that the concern about climate change is not a single ridiculously warm day but the trend toward many of them. But, of the various consequences of climate change, warm winters days are least deserving of our angst.
Warm weather positively influences our mental well-being, the New York Times reported on Feb. 24, a day when the temperature soared to 70 degrees in New York City. On such warm days, it said: “We may be more helpful … We may spend more money … It may elevate our mood … [and] It may put us in the mood for love.”
Indeed a study in Nature last April found that “virtually all American are now experiencing the much milder winters they prefer” because of climate change.
Climate change is a story of mixed effects. Some are good, and some are bad. Conventional wisdom is that the more climate changes, the more the balance will tilt toward consequences that are negative. So it’s okay to embrace the positive effects of climate change, like warmer winters, rather than lament them.
“[The winter warmth] is a good example of how all of the symptoms of a changing climate are not negative,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University told the Atlantic. “And if there is something good, then enjoying it doesn’t make [climate change] any better or worse than it would be otherwise.”
I am not arguing everything about warm winter weather is great. It can have seriously negative consequences for the ski industry, it can increase pests in the spring, lack of snow and early snowmelt can reduce water availability in the West (though not a problem this year), among other effects. But if we’re going to have warm winter weather, we may as well make the most of it.
We will have plenty of climate change effects on the weather that will be far less pleasant, such as hotter summers, more extreme rain events and more severe tidal flooding during coastal storms.
The Nature study says “we estimate that 88 percent of the US public will experience weather at the end of the century that is less preferable than weather in the recent past.”
It’s also worth pointing out that, irrespective of what we do about the climate change challenge, a certain amount of warming is already baked into the system. Some of the greenhouse gases we emit have long atmospheric lifetimes, and the oceans are storing heat that will take decades to return to the atmosphere. In other words, winters are almost certain to continue warming into the future, and we will inevitably continue to have such warm days.
The next time it is 70 degrees in February or 80 degrees in March, if you’re feeling unsettled, consider redirecting that energy toward researching ways to reduce your carbon footprint, educating your social network about climate change or advocating for the solutions you believe in most fervently. And you can do it with a smile on your face soaking in the warm winter sun.