Global Warming and Climate Change Protest Sign

Beyond Temperature: The Difference Between Global Warming and Climate Change

Steve Russell - July 2, 2024

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Many people downplay climate change as nothing more than rising temperatures, melting ice caps and a volatile hurricane season — they also might refer to it as global warming. However, people should be aware of a critical difference between global warming and climate change.

Throughout the century, human activity and industrialization have negatively and significantly impacted the planet, from the oceans to the land and the atmosphere. Yet, with the correct phrasing, it is easier to convey such effects to the public and encourage sustainable lifestyle changes. 

Here is an overview of the distinction between climate change and global warming, why it matters and how each phenomenon affects the Earth.

What Is the Difference Between Global Warming and Climate Change?

Global warming is essentially a warming planet caused by human activity. Conversely, climate change is the side effect of hotter surface temperatures, often witnessed by changing weather patterns and glaciers melting.

Global Warming

Scientists have pinpointed the causes of global warming in industrialization, energy, transportation, and other sectors. Globally, the fossil fuel industry produced 37.15 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2022, of which experts estimated to rise 1.1% in 2023. Since 1990, CO2 has increased by over 60%. 

Energy and agriculture also produce ample amounts of methane, the most potent greenhouse gas. Methane alone is accountable for one-third of today’s global warming emissions, and it has the potential to last 80 times longer than CO2 in the atmosphere. Global estimates suggest methane gas will rise by 13% this decade. 

Climate Change

Climate change occurs due to global warming but isn’t solely because of human activity. The Earth has undergone climate change naturally, such as ice ages. Throughout its 4.45 billion-year existence, the Earth has endured long periods of cold and warm weather in 100,000-year cycles, lasting millions of years at a time.

However, human-induced global warming predominantly amplifies today’s increasing climate change. 

While scientists can measure the rate of global warming year-over-year, climate change effects occur over the long term. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts melting snowpacks in North America’s western mountains and more intense and prolonged heat waves in urban areas. 

Elsewhere, climate change will likely transform tropical forests into savannahs in Latin America — posing a risk to biodiversity — and increase flash floods, erosion and crop reductions in Europe. In Africa, water scarcity will affect 75-250 million people, while Asian countries will endure increased disease mortality.

Why Does the Distinction Matter?

You might wonder why it matters to tell the difference between global warming and climate change. For one thing, the accuracy in terminology addresses the dominant concern at hand — climate change. Global warming, although important, is only one aspect of the overarching issue.

Using “climate change” correctly also underscores the consequences of global warming — the connection between environmental change and the urgency to correct it. If you use the terms interchangeably, some may perceive it as simply rising temperatures, downplaying its complexities and damage.  

Today’s Effects of Global Warming and Climate Change

Scientists can predict tomorrow’s effects of climate change and global warming by examining the rate at which they occur today. For example, warming ocean temperatures have led to mass coral bleaching events. The 2014-2017 bleaching event was the worst ever recorded, killing 30% of coral reefs in 1.5 years. Although coral reefs may cover only 1% of the ocean floor, they provide food and shelter for 25% of all marine species. 

Forests have also experienced significant die-offs due to drought brought on by global warming. The loss of trees has severely affected boreal wildlife that rely on those ecosystems for survival. Likewise, hotter temperatures have created ideal conditions for wildfire, even sending them eastward, which is uncommon. 

Meanwhile, the world has begun seeing the long-term effects of climate change unfold in the following ways:

Of course, these impacts affect society and the economy as much as they do the environment. People worldwide experience food and water shortages, greater vulnerability to severe disease and negative implications for their livelihoods. 

What Can You Do? 

The effects of climate change are underway, but there are things you can do to help slow down global warming. 

  • Find ways to save energy at home, such as using LED light bulbs, switching to energy-efficient appliances and doing laundry with cold water.
  • Ride your bike or walk when possible instead of driving a car.
  • Purchase an all-electric vehicle.
  • Reduce meat consumption and transition toward a plant-based diet.
  • Limit traveling by plane to avoid burning more fossil fuels.
  • Avoid food waste by using what you buy and composting the rest.
  • Buy less goods, shop second-hand items, and recycle and reuse products whenever possible. 
  • Buy goods from green businesses with circular supply chains.
  • Install rooftop solar panels on your home or switch to geothermal energy.

Remember, one person can’t stop environmental change from happening. It’s unfair to carry all responsibility for a warming planet. However, the green behaviors you choose on an individual level positively contribute to a healthier Earth. 

Two Terms With Big Meanings

Understanding the difference between global warming and climate change is crucial, especially since climate change’s effects may seem more daunting to address. Instead, people should focus on reducing planetary warming to prevent significant impacts from occurring.

Scientists and environmental advocates, in particular, must emphasize the distinction to the public. If people can grasp the two terms and how they differ and coincide, changing one’s lifestyle behaviors to slow global warming and climate change will become much more manageable. 

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.