Four Things to Know—and a Word of Caution—about EPA’s Climate Change Indicators Website Reboot

May 17, 2021 | 2:12 pm
Wikimedia Commons; AP/Ross Franklin; NASA
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the first updates to its Climate Change Indicators website since 2016, when the previous administration halted the regular updates that had been a feature of the site for years. By tracking the progression of climate change across different human and natural systems, the website provides an accessible place for planners and the public to explore data generated primarily by federal agencies on climate change and its impacts on our lives. Here are four things to know—and one word of caution—about EPA’s updated Climate Change Indicators resource.

1. A curated clearinghouse for climate metrics

The Climate Change Indicators website has long served as a source of information about how climate change is manifesting in the world around us as well as our daily lives. Encompassing data on heat-trapping emissions, weather and extreme events, climate, oceans, glaciers, ice sheets and ice cover, snow, ecosystems, and human health, the website brings many different sources of data under one big umbrella. Most of the data is publicly available elsewhere—such as on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) websites—but EPA screens that data to make sure it’s connected to climate change and based on trends over time.

The graphics on EPA’s Climate Change Indicators website, such as this map showing the rate of temperature change across the United States, are backed by peer-reviewed data but are also clearly communicated and easy to interpret.

The recently-updated indicators on EPA’s website collectively communicate a clear message: Almost every facet of our climate system is changing. For those following climate change stories in the news, there may be little new information here.

Usually, when we see all of that information packaged up together, though, the package takes the form of a densely technical report hundreds or thousands of pages long. Here, you can click through dozens of indicators in minutes, each of which is clearly and simply communicated with a basic graphic and a minimum of jargon. By making each indicator clear, simple, and accessible to general audiences, the EPA website is an invaluable tool for communities and community members looking to advocate for greater awareness of climate change.

2. Newly available climate change indicators

EPA’s website reboot includes about a dozen new indicators of climate change, some of which speak directly to the fact that people in the United States are increasingly aware that the climate we’re currently living with is not the climate we grew up with. For example, the new seasonal temperature indicators plainly shows the general warming of our winters. Taken together with the snowfall indicator, it’s clear your grandparent may be onto something with their tales of walking to school through waist-deep snow every day (whether that walk was uphill both ways, though, may be another story).

Average seasonal temperature trends are among roughly a dozen new indicators EPA is tracking.

In addition to the new seasonal temperature indicator, EPA has added indicators for urban heat waves, ice sheets, ice cover on the Great Lakes, and several others that are worth checking out.

3. Climate change is a priority for the EPA once again

EPA published its first Climate Change Indicators report in 2010, a few years after the Supreme Court decided that the EPA was responsible for putting forth the science that would support actions to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. EPA then regularly updated the data available on its website until 2016.

After 2016, however, the updates ceased and the website languished, as the previous administration recklessly kicked climate change to the curb as part of its relentless efforts to sideline science. In a webinar announcing the updates to the indicators website, EPA Administrator Michael Regan made clear that it will be proceeding once again with making climate change a top priority for the agency, and will once again play this critical clearinghouse role in providing data. Moreover, the refresh of the indicators website is a signal that EPA is publicly sharing the science that supports the Clean Air Act, including the regulation of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

While NOAA and other science-oriented federal agencies have a mission to provide regular updates on the state of our climate, the return of regular updates to EPA’s site is also indicative of the Biden administration’s desire for every agency to be thinking about and problem-solving around the issue of climate change.

4. There’s more that could—and should—be included in EPA’s indicators

EPA scientists said in a webinar on Wednesday that they plan to add additional indicators to their website over time, which is great news because there’s been so much powerful scientific research on climate trends over the last few years that is ripe for inclusion.

For instance, EPA currently includes a few different metrics for tropical cyclones, (more commonly known as hurricanes here) but doesn’t yet include trends in the rapid intensification or the stalling of those hurricanes—features we’ve seen with many recent storms, including Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Both rapid intensification and stalling hugely impact the ability of coastal communities to prepare for hurricanes, and recent research has linked trends in both to human-caused climate change.

It would also be great to see EPA incorporate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data on the number of claims—and their geographic distribution—over time, NOAA data on the number of billion-dollar weather disasters each year, and other data sources that drive home the human costs of climate change that the US is already shouldering.

Through EPA’s Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis (CIRA) program, the agency is already quantifying economic damages from climate change, and it would be great to see things like the cost of heat-related mortality eventually tracked in EPA’s indicators.

Now that word of caution: Some indicators reflect more than climate change

Human-caused climate change often intersects with other trends that affect climate locally or regionally, which often makes it tricky to answer the question “How much of what we’re seeing is due to human-caused climate change, and how much is due to other things?” Some of the EPA’s indicators are clearly influenced by climate, but not exclusively so. For that reason, it’s worth reading the text that goes along with each indicator’s graphics.

Urban heat waves are a prime example. Here’s the EPA graphic of this indicator:

The graphic makes clear that heat waves are rising in their frequency, duration, season length, and intensity. But the data represent 50 urban areas across the United States—not the country as a whole, which tells a more nuanced story. Here’s the nationally averaged change in the warmest temperature of the year over time from the 2017 Climate Science Special Report:

On one hand, EPA’s indicator shows a clearly worsening trend. On the other, for the nation as a whole we can see that there’s maybe a slight upward trend in the warmest temperature of the year since the 1960s, but it’s overshadowed by the heat of the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

What we’re likely seeing here is that urban areas have experienced a combination of rising temperatures, driven by human-caused climate change, and an increase in the urban heat island effect resulting from urban development. The page on EPA’s website that’s about this indicator includes information about the urban heat island effect, but it’s buried in the “About the Data” section. Here, as is always the case, it pays to actually read about the data if you’re planning to use it or draw conclusions from it.

All in all, it’s great to see the EPA recommitting to climate change as a high-priority issue. While updating data on a website is an almost infinitesimally small step toward actually getting climate change under control, we can’t fix what we can’t measure and we can’t fix what we can’t monitor. Here’s hoping this helps us to clearly see the road we’ve been traveling, hop out of our gas-guzzling cars, and walk/bike/ride/carpool into a safer future.

About the author

More from Kristy

Kristina Dahl is principal climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she provides scientific direction, strategic thinking, and technical and analytical expertise for the climate team as well as across UCS campaigns and programs. Her research focuses on the impact of climate change, particularly sea level rise and extreme heat, on people and places.