Global Warming and Climate Change - What is the Difference?
An Often Asked Question
We have all heard someone say it, "Now they have quit calling it global warming and switched it to climate change." When confronted with the question, are global warming and climate change the same, we might stop and ask ourselves what is the difference?
Global warming points to an increase in average temperatures at or near the Earth's surface, the upper layers of the oceans, and the atmosphere. Climate change is the term for a broader set of changes that accompany global warming.
Climate change includes changes in:
- Weather patterns
- Ice and snow
Let's look at each term and what it entails by itself.
"Climate change is happening, humans are causing it, and I think this is perhaps the most serious environmental issue facing us."— Bill Nye
"Global warming – an increase over time in the overall temperature of the atmosphere, due to the greenhouse effect. This is caused by higher levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants."
Higher average temperatures have been documented by scientists around the world, since the late 1800s.1 The average temperature on Earth has climbed by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of a century. The Environment Protection Agency states that temperatures are expected to jump another 2 to 11.5 degrees over the next century.
According to a NASA report, 18 major scientific organizations from around the world acknowledge global warming as fact. Going even further, 97 percent of the world’s climatologists agree that the speed of current global warming which the planet is now seeing, is not natural, but a direct effect of human activity.2 Their agreement clearly spelled out in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released on Sept. 27, 2013. Climatologists stated in their report that they are certain of the correspondence between humans and global warming. Our activities play a large role in what is taking place around us.
The Greenhouse Effect
The greenhouse effect is the catalyst for global warming. The greenhouse effect is caused when the atmosphere of Earth interacts with radiation which comes from the sun. The process known as the greenhouse effect takes place when radiation from the sun passes through Earth’s atmosphere to reach the surface. There, the radiation is absorbed and radiated upward as a form of heat. Most of this reradiated heat is absorbed by the gases found in the atmosphere. In a revolving process, it is sent back to the surface, which is warmed to an average life-supporting temperature, around 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Greenhouse Effect in Action
"Global warming caused by humans occurs when our activities introduce too much of certain types of gas into the atmosphere. More of these gases equal more warming. Atmospheric gases responsible are known as “greenhouse gases.” These gases include water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). With the most prevalent being CO2."
Global warming caused by humans happens when we introduce certain gases, in high quantities, into the atmosphere. By standard logic, more of these gases equals more warming. The gases found in the atmosphere which are primarily responsible for producing the greenhouse effect are known as “greenhouse gases,” and they include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide levels are the highest of any of the other gases in our atmosphere. However, carbon dioxide is found naturally in Earth’s atmosphere. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there were around 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and throughout the past 800,000 years, carbon dioxide was found from 180 ppm during the ice ages and 280 ppm during times of warming. However, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide amounts have increased substantially. Right now, that increase is almost 100 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.3 Scientists, in May 2013, measured carbon dioxide levels as high as 400 ppm, a measurement which hadn’t been reached for some 3 million to 5 million years ago, during the Pliocene Epoch. In 2012, carbon dioxide made up nearly 82 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.4
Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere via several routes. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide. Deforestation also contributes large amounts of carbon dioxide. According to research by Duke University,5 deforestation is second in anthropogenic causes of carbon dioxide. When trees die or are killed, they release the carbon which had been stored for photosynthesis. Deforestation alone releases almost a billion tons of carbon each year, a 2010 report from the Global Forest Resources Assessment states.
However, burning fossil fuels remains the top anthropogenic cause of carbon dioxide. The EPA shows burning fossil fuels as 32 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and 27 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S.
The second most common gas is methane. While methane might make a smaller percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, it is far more dangerous to our atmosphere. Methane comprises only 9 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions but does a much more efficient job when it comes to trapping the radiation. Methane has twenty times the impact on climate change over a century. Methane comes from several natural sources, but we cause a major portion of methane gas emissions due to mining, natural gas usage, raising large numbers of livestock, and our use of landfills. The EPA has determined that humans are responsible for over 60 percent of all methane emissions.
Effects of Global Warming
Global warming effects can be seen around the world. One example here in the U.S., Montana’s Glacier National Park. The park was once home to 150 glaciers, now, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, only 25 remain.6 A glacier – a body of snow and ice that moves – is measured by certain guidelines. Typically a glacier must measure at least 101,000 square meters, or 25 acres, in size. Anything smaller than this, the ice is still and nonmoving.
Scientists have determined that climate change will cause more intense hurricanes, and the stronger hurricanes we have seen in recent years offers more credibility to their determination. Author Adam Sobel, says, their confidence is not due to model predictions of intense hurricanes. It is because they understand why they do and can explain the reasoning regarding their current knowledge of how hurricanes work today.
Sobel is also a professor at Columbia University in both the Earth and Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics and Mathematics departments. He explained that hurricane energy is generated by the temperature difference between the cold air in the upper atmosphere and warm tropical ocean. Global warming serves an increase of the temperature differences.
Not only are hurricanes growing more intense, but also temperatures around the globe are getting hotter. North America witnessed record highs7 in 2012, making the heatwave the hottest year on record since it began being tracked in 1895. Records show it was not only the hottest year, but it had the second largest number of extreme temperatures, both highs and lows of unusual extremes. 2013 tied for the fourth warmest year around the globe since 1880 when global temperature recording began. Scientists say not only will hurricanes grow in intensity, but other storms, such as more powerful and more frequent tornadoes and deluges of rain are also possible.
Now that we know what global warming is, the causes, and the effects it has on the planet, let's take a look at climate change and find the differences between the two.
Global warming refers only to the Earth's warming temperature at the surface, while climate change includes:
- Melting Glaciers
- Heavier rainstorms
- Frequent droughts
Global warming is only one symptom of the much larger problem, human-caused climate change. Think of it as you would a sickness. You have multiple symptoms that all point to a larger, much more dangerous issue.
Climate Change Performance Index 2016
CCPI Rank 2016|2015
Share of World Pop.
22 | 25
25 | 31
34 | 46
47 | 50
53 | 52
Islamic Republic of Iran
54 | 57
56 | 58
57 | 53
58 | 55
61 | 61
Every Country, Every Continent, Every Person
In the table shown, you can see the 10 countries listed comprise almost half of the world's population. The comparison rankings between 2015 and 2016 show us how little climate change controls have been used. In some instances, countries even fell in their scores.
Climate changes touch every continent, every country on the planet. It disrupts economies and communities, today and in years to come. Greenhouse gas emissions affect people everywhere. To begin to bring about progressive change, many countries signed and adopted the Paris Agreement8 at the COP21 in Paris, France, on December 12, 2015. The agreement was put into effect less than a year after the summit, all countries who signed the agreement pledged to limit temperature rise around the globe to keep it under 2 degrees Celsius.The ultimate goal of the agreement was to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius. It helps guide the countries, acting as a map which will reduce the impact of climate change and help form a resilience to such changes.
What Can You Do To Help?
- Reduce energy use
- Walk or bike whenever possible
- Insulate your home
- Conserve water
- Wash clothes in cool water and hang dry
- Use high-efficiency appliances
- Switch to "green" power
- Repurpose instead of discarding
- When gardening, select plants suited to your climate and that require minimum water usage.
If each of us makes small changes, we could help be part of the cure instead of being part of the problem. No effort is too small.
- NASA Global Climate Change – Vital Signs of the Planet https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
- LiveScience IPCC Climate Change Report http://www.livescience.com/40021-ipcc-climate-change-report-reactions.htm
- NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/news/7074.html
- EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases
- Duke University https://sites.duke.edu/alexpfaff/files/2013/01/EncyclopediaENREE-00052final.pdf
- USGS Retreat of Glaciers in Glaciers in Glacier Park https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
- Live Science – Heat Wave Builds Again, When Will It Go Away http://www.livescience.com/21648-summer-heat-waves-continue.html
- European Commission Climate Action https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en
© 2017 Sherrie Weynand