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Who Cares About Climate Change in the Summertime?

Thinking about the most unpleasantly hot afternoons is still better than imagining cold winter days.

By Nathan Collins


Sun bathers are seen on a packed Brighton Beach in Brighton, England. (Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

Forget winter. Summer is coming, and with it another round of brutally hot days. Last year saw record temperatures in northern Europe, high temperatures that lasted into autumn in the United States, and, in India, one of the deadliest heat waves ever recorded. And this year isn’t likely to be any different: The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that 2016 will bring above-average temperatures to pretty much the entire country.

But whatever—summer’s here!

That’s what’s on most people’s minds when they think about hot summer weather. Even imagining the most unpleasantly hot afternoons is better than thinking about cold winter days, according to newresearch—and no amount of thinking does much good in getting people to protect themselves from the heat.

Heat waves can cause death, illness, and discomfort, and are expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change. Yet, United Kingdom residents seem to think of hot summers with fondness,” write Wändi Bruine de Bruin and her colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Their question—or perhaps their hope—was that getting people to think about extreme temperatures might also get them to think about how to stay safe in the heat.

Apparently Brits don’t like their summers even the slightest bit chilly.

To see if that would work, they went online and asked 1,497 United Kingdom residents to participate in a weather survey. About one-quarter of the participants were asked to recall “the highest maximum temperature” they’d experienced in the summer of 2013, when U.K. temperatures climbed over 28 degrees Celsius, or 82 degrees Fahrenheit, for 19 consecutive days, along with how pleasant that temperature was. Others recalled “the most unpleasant temperature” or “the most unpleasant highest maximum temperature” they’d experienced that summer, with the remaining quarter serving as a control group. Then, each participant rated on five-point scales how likely they’d be to take various precautions against the heat, such as avoiding alcohol, drinking cold beverages, and staying out of the sun.

The first of several surprises: The “most unpleasant” group reported lower temperatures than those in the “highest maximum” group—around 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), which was about what the “most unpleasant highest maximum” group reported. The “highest maximum” group also rated the temperatures they cited as substantially more pleasant than the “most unpleasant,” as did the “most unpleasant highest maximum” groups. Apparently Brits don’t like their summers even the slightest bit chilly.

The second surprise: Reminding people about high temperatures or unpleasant temperatures independently did little to encourage them to take hot-weather safety measures—those two groups scored only about 5 percent higher on the precautions scale compared to the control group. Even getting people to recall unpleasantly hot weather didn’t do all that much, scoring about 8 percent better than controls.

Still, 8 percent isn’t nothing, according to Bruine de Bruin and her colleagues: “Well-designed national campaigns could possibly amplify our findings. It would be relatively straightforward to add temperature recall primes to existing heat protection warnings in the United Kingdom,” they write, which could help save more lives the next time heat waves strike.