EPA Issues New Report on Climate Change

Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report chronicling climate change in the US. Using 24 indicators, the report lays out the case for both the causes and effects of climate change. By examining climate change on a national scale, the EPA's report sidesteps some of the problems with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which fails to capture the local picture. The EPA report also acknowledges the weaknesses of some of the indicators, which is a welcome move towards more openly presenting the limitations of climate science and data sets out there.

The EPA report, called Climate Change Indicators in the United States, offers 24 indicators spread across five key areas: greenhouse gases, weather and climate, oceans, snow and ice, and society and ecosystems. Each main area is explained as are each of the 24 indicators.  Key findings and limitations are also presented. Some of the more interesting findings include the following:

  • The Earth's radiative forcing (the amount of outgoing energy that is absorbed by the atmosphere) has increased by 26% from 1990 to 2008. Carbon dioxide accounts for approximately 80% of that increase.
  • Summer daily lows across the US have increased dramatically since 1970.
  • The north and west portions of the US along with Alaska are warming faster than elsewhere.
  • Sea levels are rising the most in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.  Other areas, including parts of the Pacific Northwest, have seen a decrease in sea levels.
  • Migrating birds have shifted their winter ranges and are now spending winters 35 miles more north on average as compared to 1965. Some birds have had even more dramatic shifts of hundreds of miles.
  • The length of the growing season has increased by two weeks on average throughout the US since the start of the 20th century. The rate of increase has been more dramatic in the West than the East.

These points all indicate that changes that are affecting the economy, the environment, and the climate throughout the US.  The EPA report presents these results in concrete, easy-to-understand terms. Throughout the report, basic graphics are used to show the changes. The graphics don't sacrifice sound science in favor of simplicity, though. In fact, they make it simple to take in each indicator of climate change without feeling overwhelmed.  For comparison purposes, here's a graphic from the report showing temperature change in the US from 1901-2008:

Easy enough to understand, right? Now check out a graphic in which the IPCC report sandwiches together temperature and physical and biological systems onto one map:

Got a headache yet? The EPA report is a clear winner when it comes to presenting science in a compelling and understandable manner.

In addition to relying on graphics to do a lot of the heavy lifting, the EPA report also does a great service to climate science by acknowledging it isn't perfect. Most of the data in the report comes from hard data, not model projections. Using real data shows things that are actually happening. At the same time, the report also very openly states what limitations there are in using these indicators. This strengthens the more compelling findings and also disarms people looking to attack them.

Finally, the report really stands out by showing climate change on a more local level. Go back to that IPCC map and try to find New York. It's not easy. Now check out the EPA map. Not as bad. While it still doesn't give you a neighborhood-by-neighborhood list of climate change causes and effects, the EPA report makes climate change a little more relevant to people's daily lives. In some cases, indicators like bird migration and plant hardiness zones are indicators people can actually look for in their own backyard, though.

Local indicators along with transparent science are what will ultimately get people to notice climate change and spur them to action. Let's hope this report can serve as an example of how to make climate change more relevant and make climate science more user-friendly.

Photo Credit: Flickr