Jan. 7, 2018

Climate change vs global warming

Over the holidays, my mother asked me why we use the term global warming rather than the term climate change. She, like many others, had wondered why global warming could lead to harsher winter weather. So, I decided to explore this use of language and discovered some interesting things.

Let’s begin with defining and contrasting the two terms. From: https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/difference-between-global-warming-and-climate-change

  • Global warming applies to the long-term trend of rising average global temperatures.
  • Climate change is a broader term that reflects the fact that carbon pollution does more than just warm our planet. Carbon pollution is also changing rain and snow patterns and increasing the risk of intense storms and droughts; increased prevalence of droughts, heat waves, and other extreme weather, etc.  . 


From https://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-global-warming.htm

Both of the terms in question are used frequently in the scientific literature, because they refer to two different physical phenomena. As the name suggests, global warming refers to the long-term trend of a rising average global temperature

Climate change, as the name suggests, refers to the changes in the global climate which result from the increasing average global temperature.  For example, changes in precipitation patterns,

Thus while the physical phenomena are causally related, they are not the same thing. Human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which in turn is causing climate change. However, because the terms are causally related, they are often used interchangeably in normal daily communications.

From https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/whats-difference-between-global-warming-and-climate-change

Global warming refers only to the Earth’s rising surface temperature, while climate change includes warming and the side effects of warming—like melting glaciers, heavier rainstorms, or more frequent drought. Said another way, global warming is one symptom of the much larger problem of human-caused climate change.

The use of more than one term to describe different aspects of the same phenomenon tracks the progress of scientists’ understanding of the problem. As far back as the late 1800s, scientists were hypothesizing that industrialization, driven by the burning of fossil fuels for energy, had the potential to modify the climate. For many decades, though, they weren’t sure whether cooling (due to reflection of sunlight from pollution which occurs with particulate matter from volcanic eruptions) or warming (due to greenhouse gases and greenhouse effect) would dominate.

By the mid-1970s, however, more and more evidence suggested warming would dominate and that it would be unlike any previous, naturally triggered warming episode. The phrase global warming emerged to describe that scientific consensus.

But over subsequent decades, scientists became more aware that global warming was not the only impact of excess heat absorbed by greenhouse gases. By the 1990s, scientists increasingly used “human-caused climate change” to describe the challenge facing the planet.


The argument "they changed the name" suggests that the term global warming was previously the norm, and the widespread use of the term climate change is now used as fear mongering.  However, this is simply untrue. For example, a seminal climate science work is Gilbert Plass' 1956 study The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change. Barrett and Gast published a letter in Science in 1971 entitled simply Climate Change.  The journal Climatic Change was created in 1977 (and is still published today). The IPCC was formed in 1988, and of course the 'CC' is climate change, not global warming.  There are many, many other examples of the use of the term climate change many decades ago. There is nothing new whatsoever about the usage of the term.

The only individual to actually advocate changing the term from global warming to climate change is Republican political strategist Frank Luntz in a controversial memo advising conservative politicians on communicating about the environment:

It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.

There is simply no factual basis whatsoever to the myth "they changed the name from global warming to climate change to spin the liberal hoax.”

The Bottom Line

Regardless of whether you say that climate change is all the side effects of global warming, or that global warming is one symptom of human-caused climate change, you’re essentially talking about the same basic phenomenon: the buildup of excess heat energy in the Earth system. By the way, the scientific definition of heat is an increase in the kinetic energy of the particles that make up a substance. Certainly an increase in kinetic energy of the atoms that make-up the atmosphere can have an effect on climate.  

Today’s global warming is an unprecedented type of climate change, and it is driving a cascade of side effects in our climate system. It’s these side effects, such as extreme weather, acidification of the oceans, changes in sea level along heavily populated coastlines and the worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers that millions of people depend on for drinking water and agriculture, that are likely to have a much greater impact on society than temperature change alone. Other changes—sea level rise, intensification of the water cycle, stress on plants and animals—are likely to be far more important to our daily lives and economies.