The terms global warming and climate changed are often used interchangeably, but do they really mean the same thing. We explore the definitions of these terms, talk about the differences, and talk about the implications of the argument over the validity of the names.
For many years global warming and global climate change have been hot topics in the media, with meteorologists, and with the general public. As the world pushes more and more for sustainability in business and individual’s daily lives, we hear more and more about these two terms.
One point of contention among non-experts is whether or not global warming and climate change refer to the same phenomenon or if they are two fundamentally different terms referring to different things. The truth is, although the media tends to use the terms interchangeably, they are fundamentally different things.
Throughout the rest of this article, we will go into detail to give you more information about what each of these terms really means, how the confusion began, and what the long term implications are for both climate change and global warming as we look ahead at the health of our planet.
What is Global Warming?
The term global warming refers to global temperatures that are rising because of increasing greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. We use the term global warming when speaking about the long-term warming trend of the planet that we’ve monitored since the early 20th century. The Industrial Revolution caused a drastic increase in fossil fuel emissions, which are thought to be a major cause of this warming.
Since 1880 we have seen a worldwide surface temperature increase of about two degrees Fahrenheit worldwide. That amount is on top of the much smaller warming that happened between 1750 and 1880.
What is Climate Change?
When we talk about climate change what we’re referring to are a large number of phenomena happening globally which has resulted primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. Although these phenomena include increased global temperature, they also encompass other things like sea level rise, ice mass loss, a shift in blooming of flowers and plants, and extreme weather events.
Essentially, global warming is a piece of climate change, but the whole concept encompasses much more than global warming does. It is also important to note that the prominently used term in the 1970s and earlier was “inadvertent climate modification.” The term started to get muddied with the use of global warming in 1975 when a geochemist from Columbia University published an article using the new term.
How Did These Terms Get Confused?
The broad lack of understanding of the terms global warming and climate change comes mainly from mainstream use of them in media and other sources. In scientific journals and communities, the terms are used largely as their definitions require, but that hasn’t changed the popular uses of the terms as interchangeable.
Global warming started to dominate the mainstream in the late 1980s when a NASA scientist testified to Congress that greenhouse gases were, in fact, causing global warming. This was a widely reported story in the media, and so the term global warming became popular to use by both businesses and the media to talk about all of the negative effects of greenhouse gases and fossil fuel emissions.
One reason for the switch from global warming to climate change was the Bush administration. When President George W. Bush was in office, the administration preferred the term climate change because it was perceived as less scary than global warming. At the time, the public believed that there was a debate about global warming among scientists, and political strategists were trying to use that debate to keep Republican control of the White House.
Unfortunately, the use of global warming as the popular term took away some of the potency of the real threats of climate change, which include changes in patterns of precipitation and sea level rise. More recently the common term used in the media has become global climate change, which is far more accurate when we are talking about all of the ways greenhouse gases affect the world around us.
Unfortunately, because of the confusion from the late 80s through the 2000s, some people believe that global warming was proven not to exist or that the name changed because scientists were trying to hide something. Of course, that isn’t the case, but with the popularity of social media and the ever-increasing sources of false information available, it can be difficult to convince some people that climate change is actually the all-encompassing term.
Don’t Let the Names Distract You
One of the worst parts of this name game in popular media is that it can serve as a distraction from what’s actually happening in the world. It causes critics to shout things like “climate change is natural!” and then stop looking at the realities of how these changes can affect us, and may ultimately hurt or destroy humanity, as we know it.
Scientists know that climate change is natural in some ways. They take into account Milankovitch cycles, which refer to changes in the Earth’s tilt, orbit, and wobble, as well as solar variations and other things. That doesn’t, however, mean that scientists don’t also see what they call the effect of the human steroid, which basically adds to the changes that would have occurred naturally and creates bigger, more threatening changes to our climate.
Recently the National Academies of Sciences responded to statements made by President Trump by saying that the lack of evidence of global warming or pauses in warming was not why the terms shifted, nor did the terms shift in scientific communities. They explained that the term is used more popularly now because it is more scientifically accurate than global warming for the global phenomena we are experiencing.
In probably the first scholarly analysis of both terms that was published five years ago, a University of Georgia doctoral candidate found that the media preferred the term global warming while scientists tended to lean toward climate change. In the analysis, she argued that using the term climate change is a better bet because it can open up conversations between the scientific community, the media, and the public.
She also mentioned that climate change better conveys that there are many risks in a range of areas that don’t directly associate with higher temperatures. This is consistent with what we have seen again and again as the terms have gotten muddled in the public eye and clarified among scientists.
Letting the debate about the name of the phenomena occurring in our world become the forefront of the discussion is distracting us from the real problems that climate change causes. In the end, it’s less about what we call the cause of these phenomena and more about what we are doing to disrupt these happenings so that the worst-case scenario cannot and does not occur.
What are the Long Term Implications?
Now that you know what these terms mean and why they are different from one another, we wanted to take a second to talk about the long-term implications of global warming and those of overall climate change. Scientists believe that there will be a myriad of effects, and have gone so far as to break them down by continent.
Some of the most extreme effects will likely include the following:
Those are just the global implications. The individualized implications are more intensive and slightly scarier to think about. They include increased water stress in Africa, coastal flooding in Asia, increased frequency and intensity of heat waves where they aren’t usually experienced in North America, replacement of the tropical rain forests by dessert in Latin America, and more.
Some of these threats are expected to take hold as soon as 2020, while others will likely take until the 2050s to be noticeable. These effects are exactly why the debate over what we call climate change is dangerous because it distracts us from the issues at hand and from finding solutions to the problems before the most severe implications come to fruition.
Although global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably in the media and within the general population, the two terms are fundamentally different. Global warming is just one piece of climate change. Global warming refers only to the temperature increase of the earth, while climate change refers to all the changes to our climate that are occurring due to the increases in carbon emissions and trapped greenhouse gasses.
The conversation about which term is more correct or more appropriate is actually a distraction from the issues themselves, which means that we are spending more time trying to convince one another that we are correct about which term to use than we are actually working on solutions to any of the problems we have created as a “human steroid.”
Understanding that the more scientifically accurate term is climate change is the start of opening up productive conversations on the subject between scientists, the media, and the general public. We can only hope that those conversations will lead to the start of plans that can lead us back into the correct direction to limit the effects our existence has on the planet.