Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


Warm Winters Won’t Make You Happier

Despite what some climate change apologists might have you think.

A melted snowman.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Does everything actually suck right now? Or is it just the end of January?

It can be difficult to tell. We’re officially in the thick of what Americans consider to be the worst time of year, when complaining about the weather is an acceptable salutation and feeling “blah” is the basic condition of being alive. Even setting aside seasonal affective disorder — a condition linked to limited daylight, and thus not directly affected by climate change — studies have shown that people have a lower quality diet in the winter, and body weight usually reaches its peak this time of year. Physical activity, which is also important for mental health, dips as the weather gets worse, and research has even shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease experience more severe symptoms when the planet is tilted away from the sun.

Some have taken these winter blues as an opportunity to question the basic premise that climate change is bad. “The chief benefits of global warming” include “fewer winter deaths” and lower heating bills, Matt Ridley argued in The Spectator in 2013. Former President Donald Trump even has a quasi-annual tradition of tweeting something like “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!” during cold snaps this time of year.

Winter is, in fact, warming faster than any other season in the United States, with some parts of the country on track to lose over a month of freezing days as soon as 2050. Even if you do believe — correctly — that climate change is a global catastrophe, unless you’re a skier or snowboarder, this might sound like a good thing. So, as sacrilegious as it feels to ask, could a warmer planet make us healthier in the wintertime?

When I asked Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator at the California Institute of Integral Studies, if she expected milder winters to impact people psychologically, she answered immediately. “Oh, one hundred percent!,” she told me. That doesn’t mean she thinks the impact will be positive. She said she has heard people “who are a little more on the climate denial end of things” make comments like “this is great, it used to be so cold and now I can go golfing,” she told me, but “I can’t honestly call that an upside.”

Far more often, Davenport said she hears from people experiencing a sense of “unsettling” as they notice winter isn’t as cold or as snowy as they remember it being. Some might even express a feeling of “solastalgia,” a neologism that describes the sense of displacement or nostalgia that arises when a place changes environmentally. “Whether it’s the loss of snow, or areas that are drier or hotter or wetter, it is like, ‘Well, this is not the town I grew up in or the place I chose to move to because it has changed so much,’” Davenport said.

While there might be an abstract appeal to the Los Angelesification of winter nationwide, it would be a mistake to count on climate change making the season “better.” Quite the opposite, actually — warmer winters could make winter much worse, especially for those living in midlatitude cities like New York, London, or Amsterdam. “I have observed, in my travels and my research and in talking to people, that it is often much easier and more pleasant to cope with winter weather that is slightly below freezing consistently than weather that is slightly above freezing consistently,” Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist who is working on a book about winter mindsets, told me.

Cold temperatures can actually improve our lives in several ways, Leibowitz argued. For one thing, snowfall “opens up a whole bunch of winter opportunities” like sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and all those winter sports that get people out of the house. That helps combat some of the bluesiness that otherwise comes from moping around indoors when it’s too gray and rainy to do anything active. Frozen lakes offer opportunities for skating and hockey, plus “there’s also a lot of beauty and intrigue in ice — you know, icicles and frozen rainstorms,” Leibowitz went on.

Snow, meanwhile, “reflects the light, so it makes the darkness of winter feel much, much brighter,” Leibowitz said. “And most people think it’s really beautiful — it’s clean and fresh and it smells good.”

Of course, winter weather can be dangerous, too, but “places that are colder and have really frozen winters have good infrastructure for dealing with that, and houses tend to be better insulated and heated more efficiently,” Leibowitz said. Bad winter weather can also give us much-needed permission to rest.

While there are certain places further in the south, such as Atlanta, where winter might genuinely become more pleasant as the planet warms, “there are far more places where the end of winter is just going to mean places are dark and wet,” without the upsides that come with the snow and freezing temperatures, Leibowitz stressed.

Michael Varnum, the head of the Culture and Ecology Laboratory at Arizona State University and a specialist in seasonal psychology, did find one positive. “Nobody likes to feel down, or to look at their waistline and see it’s grown,” he told me. “So potentially, there could be some upsides there.”

Naturally, much of how you feel about winter will depend on the climate where you live. In general, though, “we are somewhat more insulated from the changes in temperature that come with the seasons than we were, say, 10,000 years ago or even a couple hundred years ago,” Varnum said. Feelings of climate anxiety and distress tend to be highest in Indigenous communities in or near the Arctic, where the cold weather is a part of cultural identity and inheritance. Likewise, Davenport told me, in “places where there tends to be a lot of snow” like Japan or Finland, “there’s talk about things like ‘winter grief,’” where a milder winter makes it so that “certain rituals or holidays that have been planned in the past can’t happen anymore or as consistently.”

Many Americans, too, lose a sense of themselves when winter gets milder. “It’s what a lot of us love about living here: our winters,” Erich Osterberg, a Dartmouth climate scientist, told The New Hampshire Bulletin in 2022. “It’s more than changes to the climate,” he added, “it’s changes to our livelihood and our culture.” I encountered similar comments from Minnesotans when I was looking into how an unseasonably dry winter is imperiling this year’s cross country ski season: “Spiritually, this is terrible,” Claire Wilson, the executive director of Minneapolis’ Loppet Foundation, recently told the Star Tribune.

Winter doesn’t have to be dreaded, Leibowitz said — much of one’s enjoyment of the season comes down to mindset. But it does seem to matter that winter is actually, well, wintery, too. Whether that’s a question of our evolutionary seasonal biology (winter appears to be an important trigger for the human reproductive cycle, for one thing), or a matter of our cultural practices, or something as simple as snow being more fun than rain, it’s hard to make the case that warming winters will leave us better off.

“If you want me to find the psychological upside of anything, I could maybe do it,” Leibowitz confessed. She added, though, that “a lot of people think, ‘I hate winter, I hate the cold, I would be happy if it was warmer all year round.’ But people underestimate how much there is to be lost in losing winter.”

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.


Jennifer Wilcox on Building the First U.S. Carbon Removal Office

Now back at the University of Pennsylvania, she talks to Heatmap about community engagement, gaps in the decarbonization market, and goats.

Jen Wilcox.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Climeworks, Tiffy3/Wikimedia Commons

In November of 2020, Jennifer Wilcox had just moved to Philadelphia and was preparing to start a new chapter in her career as a tenured “Presidential Distinguished Professor” at the University of Pennsylvania. Then she got the call: Wilcox was asked to join the incoming Biden administration as the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy, a division of the Department of Energy.

Wilcox had never even heard of the Office of Fossil Energy and was somewhat uneasy about the title. A chemical engineer by training, Wilcox had dedicated her work to climate solutions. She was widely known for having written the first textbook on carbon capture, published in 2012, and for her trailblazing research into removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. With Penn’s blessing, she decided to take the job. And in the just over three years she was in office, she may have altered the course of U.S. climate action forever.

Keep reading...Show less

AM Briefing: TerraPower Breaks Ground

On Bill Gates’ advanced nuclear reactor, solar geoengineering, and FEMA

TerraPower Just Broke Ground on Its Next-Gen Nuclear Project
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Heavy rains in China are boosting the country’s hydropower output • Late-season frost advisories are in place for parts of Michigan • It will be 80 degrees Fahrenheit and cloudy today near the Port of Baltimore, which has officially reopened after 11 weeks of closure.


1. Bill Gates’ TerraPower breaks ground on next-gen nuclear project

TerraPower, the energy company founded by Bill Gates, broke ground yesterday on a next-generation nuclear power plant in Wyoming that will use an advanced nuclear reactor. As Heatmap’s Emily Pontecorvo and Matthew Zeitlin explained, these reactors are smaller and promise to be cheaper to build than America’s existing light-water nuclear reactor fleet. The design “would be a landmark for the American nuclear industry” because it calls for cooling with liquid sodium instead of the standard water-cooling of American nuclear plants. “This technique promises eventual lower construction costs because it requires less pressure than water (meaning less need for expensive safety systems) and can also store heat, turning the reactor into both a generator and an energy storage system.” TerraPower is still waiting for its construction permit to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and TheAssociated Press reported the work that began yesterday is just to get the site ready for speedy construction if the permit goes through.

Keep reading...Show less
Donald Trump snapping a wind turbine.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Clean energy developers and the bankers who fund them are all pretty confident that a change in power in Washington, should one occur next year, won’t mean the end of the Inflation Reduction Act or the buildout of renewables across the country — except, that is, when it comes to offshore wind. Trump has special contempt for wind energy in all its forms — to him, all wind turbines are bird murderers, but offshore turbines are especially deadly, adding both whales and property values to their list of victims. He has said he will issue an executive order on day one of his second turn as president to “make sure that that ends.”

While the scope and legal enforceability of any potential executive order remain unclear, the wind industry, environmental activists, and analysts have all found plenty of other reasons to be worried.

Keep reading...Show less