We may be bearing witness to the dawning of a new human experience: “warm weather ambivalence.” This experience may take somewhat different forms in different locations, but in places where there are four seasons, above average temperatures in Fall, Winter, and Spring may yield mixed feelings for some people. The recent unseasonably warm weather across much of the United States is illustrative. On one hand, we are delighted by the warmth as we feel the energy of the sun on our skin and we feel freed from some of the constraints of Winter. On the other hand, some of us sense that something has changed – and is changing – for the worse.
Of course, there have to be below-average temperatures and above-average temperatures for there to be temperature averages. No one day or one week should be taken as convincing evidence about the presence or absence of global climate change. But, there are broad trends pointing to systemic changes in the climate.
An increasing number of Americans seem to accept the scientific consensus about this. In a 2016 nationally representative Gallup poll, a record high 41% agreed that global warming will pose a serious threat to their way of life at some point during their lifetimes. In the same poll, a record high 65% agreed that warming is due to human activity. For individuals who accept the reality of climate change, there is likely to be a different emotional reaction to unseasonably warm weather, as compared with those who do not accept these claims. For instance, I have been hearing people say things like “it is so gorgeous outside, but this warmth does make me feel a bit uneasy.” Others may not have yet connected the dots between changing weather trends and climate change predictions.
There is a large psychological literature pointing to the impact of individuals’ beliefs and perceptions on their emotional experiences. Some psychological scientists have argued that those who think realistically can be more prone to emotional suffering, while those possessing “positive illusions” about reality are more likely to be happy. Although unrealistic optimism may make us feel better in the short-term, I always have found great wisdom in the teaching that “the truth will set us free.” If the choice is between truth and happiness, truth often is the better long-term option, if for no other reason that it allows us to respond well to the difficult realities we sometimes face.
Part of the stress response to climate change is due to the lack of control many of us individually feel about it. However, psychological research on stress suggests that is adaptive to be active and problem-focused in our coping response. Given this, our warm weather ambivalence may point us to constructive actions, including behaviors that result in lowering our carbon footprints and supporting a recent Republican proposal to address climate change that has potential for bipartisan support. If our ambivalence leads to such actions, it may be possible for us to experience a bit less angst, more enjoyment, and more hope during some of the beautiful Spring days ahead.