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Climate question: What’s the difference between global warming and climate change?

A stock image of a the dictionary definition of climate change, with the phrase highlighted in pink marker.
Feng Yu
Climate change is the change in Earth's climate, with humans being the primary contributor to climate change today. Global warming is an effect of climate change that is defined as the long-term rise in temperature of the planet. One way to think of the relationship between the two is, if climate change is the illness, global warming is a symptom.

When discussing climate, the terms are often viewed as interchangeable. But, as my own mother wrote in to our climate questions survey, the difference isn’t always clear.

If my own mom asked the question, I thought other members of our audience might appreciate some clarification too. So, here it is:

Simply put, climate change is any change in the Earth’s climate at any point throughout Earth’s history.

But there’s a difference between climate change and human-caused climate change. Humans are currently the biggest contributor to global warming by burning fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases, climate expert and Director of Climate Communication Susan Hassol said.

“The sunlight comes down from the sun, it heats up the earth,” she said. “The earth re-radiates that heat back towards space. But some of these molecules, like carbon dioxide, trap some of that heat that the earth's re-radiating back towards space -- trap it in the climate system and make the earth warmer than it would otherwise be.”

Global warming is the long-term rise in temperature on the planet. Like climate change, global warming can occur – and has occurred – naturally throughout our planet’s history. But due to human’s impact on climate change, the global temperature no longer aligns with natural trends.

“If we look at all the volcanic eruptions, climate would have actually cooled slightly over the last hundred years. Instead, climate has warmed very strongly over the last hundred years,” Hassol said. “And we know why. It's because of the burning of coal, oil and gas and the clearing of forests. It's the human activity.”

Human activity, has led to unprecedented change in the planet’s climate Hassol said, and these changes come with adverse effects.

Global warming is one effect of climate change, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it’s not the only one. One way to think of the relationship between the two is, if climate change is the illness, global warming is a symptom, along with severe and frequent rain events, heatwaves and wildfires.

If no action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, climate change and its effects will only get worse, experts say, leading to more frequent and severe weather events threatening human life and biodiversity.

How to reduce your impact

There are steps people can take to reduce their carbon footprint and lessen their contribution to climate change and global warming. But, conserving energy by turning of lights and unplugging appliances are small drops in the bucket, Hassol said.

“Turning off your lights is very small,” she said. “I'm not saying you shouldn't do it. It's still good. It's always good to conserve energy, but you should worry about the things that are big.”

Instead, Hassol recommends individuals consider bigger conservation practices, though they might require some form of lifestyle change. Effective ways to reduce a carbon foot print, she said, are to drive and fly less and to consider the number of children you might have in family planning.

“If you live in the United States, having one fewer child makes a really big difference because children born in this culture use a lot of energy and a lot of resources,” Hassol said. “That's a personal decision, but ... it's the single biggest thing that anybody can do.”

It’s too late to reverse the effects of climate change, Hassol said. Though unlikely, we’d need a world-wide shift away from fossil fuels to stop global warming from getting worse.

Hassol also recommends other personal choices, like reducing food waste, eating less meat and dairy that contributes to deforestation and carbon emissions and avoiding banks that fund the fossil fuel industry.

“The four biggest U.S. banks are the four largest funders of that fossil fuel expansion. Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America,” she said. “So, if you have your money in those banks and you use those banks for your credit cards, you're actually contributing to that problem.”

In the meantime, these conservation practices can prevent the effects climate change – like global warming – from getting worse, Hassol said.

Changing climate language

The words we use to talk about climate change and its effects are essential to make sure we’re communicating the right message, Hassol said. But this also means we should choose our words carefully.

When discussing climate change, Hassol recommends referring to it as human-caused climate change to specify that the effects we’re seeing today are not natural, and instead brought on by human action.

“Some people hear climate change and they think, ‘oh, well then, the change we're seeing now could be natural,’” she said. “But the science is very clear that this current warming is not natural.”

There are also a few phrases she’d recommend over global warming, which can be confusing and inaccurate when used in conversation.

“[The] problem with global warming is that it sounds nice to some people, right? Warmth is generally a positive thing.,” Hassol said. “Another problem is that it speaks mainly to rising temperatures, and it doesn't invoke all the other things that come along with the rising temperatures: heavy rainfall that causes flooding, stronger, more destructive hurricanes [and] larger, more intense wildfires.”

Instead, Hassol recommends phrases like climate disruption, global heating and global weirding to cover all the bases of climate change and its effects.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.