From 2010 through 2016, the Obama administration released four editions of a report entitled “Climate Change Indicators in the U.S.” A detailed look at dozens of variables documenting worldwide changes resulting from global warming, the report functioned as a public informational resource, a guiding star for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decisions, and a clarion call to action. The very first report in 2010 was unequivocal about humans’ role in climate change. “Evidence of human influences on climate change has become increasingly clear and compelling,” it declared.
Then, after the fourth biennial report in 2016, Donald Trump assumed the presidency. The climate change indicators website, which was previously updated every six months with new data, languished for years. One staffer told the trade publication E&E News that staff weren’t allowed to update the website and that political appointees were afraid changes to the site would be reported in the news, which could draw the ire of then-President Trump. During all four years of his tenure, the Trump administration didn’t bother to publish any new editions of the report, either.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration resumed the Obama-era practice, and the EPA published a 2021 update to the report. A newly updated website provides a sweeping overview of 54 key indicators of climate change and their effect on human health. Using peer-reviewed sources, the update is the result of a government-wide effort and relies on data collected by 50 different agencies. Many of the changes it documents are already commonly understood to be true: The planet is warming, ice sheets are melting, heat waves are becoming more common, sea levels are rising, flooding is more frequent along the country’s East and Gulf coasts, and both wildfire and pollen seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer.
“We can fundamentally make people’s lives better by confronting climate change,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a webinar announcing the relaunch of the report. “That’s why our climate indicators matter. This resource provides the observed evidence that climate change is happening now, and it’s affecting the health and safety of communities all across the country.”
The report, which has continually evolved over the years as scientists’ understanding of the effects of climate change has improved, has 12 new indicators that were not available in the 2016 edition. The new metrics include the number and length of heat waves, residential energy use figures, a count of cold-related deaths, ice cover measurements in the Great Lakes, and permafrost conditions.
According to the report, data collected by the Energy Information Administration show that the average American home has doubled its energy use compared to 1973, with consumption rates plateauing more recently. The report notes that as temperatures rise, people are more reliant on air conditioning during the summer and are seeing utility costs rise as a result. With the U.S. still dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation, the report warns that increased use of air conditioning could lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, effectively setting up a feedback loop between increased air conditioning and worsening global warming.
The report also highlights that heat waves have become more common and last longer. The 50 major metropolitan areas that the EPA collated data for experienced six heat waves a year on average in the last decade, compared to just two heat waves in the 1960s. The heat wave season is also 47 days longer in these cities than it was in the 1960s.
The EPA has published interactive charts and maps that allow users to explore these indictaors, which can be accessed here.