A Year of Climate Change, as (Not) Presented by the EPA

On the first anniversary of the agency’s removal of climate change info from its website, a look back at one of the earth’s roughest years on record and the fight to set things right.

May 11, 2018

iStock

“This page is being updated.” So begins the message that has greeted visitors to the climate change page on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website for just over a year now. “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.”

As the Washington Post recently reported, those “priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt” would seem to include withholding important information about climate change—both its causes and its effects—from the general public, perhaps in perpetuity. Two (anonymous) employees of the agency have glumly confirmed that the “update” is a sham. “There’s definitely no progress on the website,” one of them told the Post. “I’m not sure anyone’s even addressing it.”

I was curious: What climate-connected events and milestones have occurred while the page has sat stagnant? As agency officials spent the past year pretending to mull over their position on climate change, what kind of a year did the rest of us have?

As it happens, the period from May 2017 to May 2018, from a climate change perspective, has been one of the most devastating and costly 12-month spans ever recorded. The EPA really picked one hell of a year to stop informing the American people about the single-greatest threat to the environment. Here’s a recap.

Stand up to Trump’s climate-denial agenda

Record-Breaking Heat Around the Globe

The EPA may have determined that 2017 was the year global warming should go underground, but the atmosphere didn’t listen. According to NASA, 2017 was incontrovertibly the second-hottest year on earth since 1880, when such record-keeping first began. Europeans understandably bestowed the name Lucifer on a summer heat wave that reached as high as 117 degrees in some parts of Spain and brought lengthy stretches of triple-digit temperatures to many other countries. India continued its miserable, years-long streak of deathly hot summers, with the mercury rising as high as 120 degrees in some areas; hundreds of deaths all over the subcontinent were attributed to the heat. Here in the United States, we experienced our third-hottest year on record, with five states—Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina—reaching new all-time highs.

Arctic Ice Loss, Out of Control
 

Vladimir Melnik/Shutterstock

Glacial is a word you might well use to describe the pace at which the EPA’s webmasters are working to update the agency’s climate change page. Unfortunately, it is also a word that’s becoming less and less apposite for describing the home of glaciers: the Arctic. According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent for April of 2018 was measured at 980,000 square kilometers below average—meaning that this year has tied 2016 for the lowest April sea ice extent on record. In plain language: There’s less ice atop Arctic waters right now than ever before in the nearly 40 years that we’ve been keeping track of such a thing, save for two years ago, when it was about the same.

The Costliest Wildfire Season in U.S. History

As the EPA was reconsidering its “priorities” regarding how to address climate change, nearly 50,000 separate wildfires were consuming millions of acres, destroying tens of thousands of structures, and killing dozens throughout the American West. The U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion fighting these fires last year, a new record. In California, where the 2017 wildfire season lasted well past Christmas (it usually subsides around October), the damage—exacerbated by years of drought and high temperatures—was enough to make it the worst season in the state’s history. And as the 2018 wildfire season approaches, analysts are already making ominous forecasts.

The Costliest Hurricane Season in U.S. History
 

Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Thais Llorca/EFE/Alamy

While EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was openly pushing for a series of public debates on the science of climate change—a dumb-to-begin-with scheme that we’ve just now learned would have been rigged to favor climate skeptics—Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were laying waste to giant swaths of the United States and the Caribbean. They killed more than a thousand people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, and cost our country more than $282 billion. In Puerto Rico, where Maria hit last September, many Americans are still living without water and electricity. Residents there and on the Gulf Coast have spent the past nine months trying to rebuild after what experts have deemed the fifth-most catastrophic hurricane season since such record-keeping began—and the most expensive ever. Meanwhile, the 2018 hurricane season begins on June 1—and experts are already predicting it to be “above average” in activity.

A Fired-Up Resistance

The past 12 months were marked by a string of menacing superlatives: most, worst, hottest, driest, priciest, even melty-est. But amazingly, it wasn’t all bad. If our natural systems spent much of the past year in open revolt, our human systems have risen to the occasion. In the vacuum created by the Trump administration’s shameful inaction, states, other countries, and even corporations have stepped up. Last July, for instance, Governor Jerry Brown announced that California would be hosting a global climate action summit this September in San Francisco, with the purpose of moving members of the international community—including the United States, with or without the support of its federal government—toward the goals spelled out in the Paris climate agreement. (You remember, the one President Trump pulled out of last June).

Climate change keeps happening whether the EPA acknowledges it or not. Fortunately, the global, national, and local fights against it continue, too, whether the U.S. government takes part in them . . . or not.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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