What's the Difference Between Global Warming and Climate Change?
By Mark Mancini
On Aug. 18, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. The deceased party was Okjökull, a historic body of ice that covered 14.6 square miles (38 square kilometers) in the Icelandic Highlands at the turn of the 20th century. But its glory days are long gone. In 2014, having dwindled to less than 1/15 its former size, Okjökull lost its status as an official glacier.
A plaque was later commissioned to honor the vanishing landmark. At the somber installation ceremony, around 100 people gathered to pay their respects, including hikers, scientists and Iceland's Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Speaking to the press, Jakobsdóttir warned that if current trends continue, her country stands to lose even more of its iconic glaciers in the near future.
The evidence is overwhelming: Greenhouse gas emissions (and other human activities) are radically transforming the planet on which we live. As a result, California's wildfire season is getting longer; thawing permafrost has destabilized Russian infrastructure; and yes, most of the world's glaciers are swiftly retreating.
With public concern on the rise, two relevant terms have entered the lexicon: "Climate change" and "global warming." These are often treated like synonyms, but they have different meanings.
Climate and Weather
Before proceeding further, there's another bit of terminology that we probably should clear up. The difference between climate and weather. Weather is the short-term state of the atmosphere in a specific corner of the world. Humidity, temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure and visibility are all factors that help dictate the weather at a particular moment in time.
In other words, weather doesn't last very long. It unfolds over the course of days, hours or even minutes. Therefore, it's liable to change quickly — which is why so many of us yearn for constant updates. Whenever you ask if your hometown is "supposed to get any rain" on a given day, you're inquiring about the weather.
Don't confuse weather with climate. The latter is far broader in scope. Basically, climate reflects an area's long-term weather averages and trends. Those are often established by decades (at least) of meticulous observation. Given the difference in scale, it makes sense that the climate is much slower to change than the weather.
And yet changes do occur. Averaged together, all the world's regional climates form what scientists know as the "global climate." This is liable to evolve and fluctuate over time — as are its regional components.
So far, 2018 is the fourth hottest year on record. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue.
Ralf Goebel / GEMA
Ok, so what exactly does the term "climate change" mean? By the broadest definition, climate change includes any and all long-term fluctuations in one or more climate-related variables — such as average rainfall — within the same location.
Note that this applies to both regional climates and the global climate itself. So let's say northern Europe saw a dramatic spike in rainstorms and the trend continued for decades on end. That hypothetical scenario would count as an example of regional climate change, no matter what happened elsewhere in the world.
On the other hand, global warming is — well, global. More to the point, the term refers to an increase in a planet's average surface temperature. And here on Earth, that's definitely been climbing.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that between the years 1880 and 2016, our home planet's average surface temperatures increased to the tune of 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit (0.95 degrees Celsius).
Mind you, this is nothing to sneeze at. A planet-wide temperature shift of only a few degrees can have enormous ramifications. Fifteen thousand years ago, in a geologically-recent ice age, our world was only about 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler (5 degrees Celsius) than it is today. And yet, that temperature was enough to keep almost a third of the planet's surface blanketed in ice.
Ah, but we're getting off-track. The main takeaway here is that global warming is a form of climate change — but climate change doesn't always manifest itself as global warming.
An Unprecedented Problem
Strange as it may sound, the recent warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions may be provoking an increase in both flooding and droughts. While certain areas across the globe now receive enhanced precipitation, soils in some dryer parts of the world stand to lose a great deal of moisture.
To learn more, we reached out to Dr. Nathan Steiger. An atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, Steiger studies the effects that variations in climate have had — and still have — on human civilizations.
"Historically, societies were impacted most by the same kinds of disruptive climate events that occur today: prolonged and extreme heat and cold, droughts and floods," he said via email. "Often these climate changes in the past simply happened to people due to no fault of their own ... But sometimes these disruptive climate extremes were made worse by human mismanagement of their environments."
He points to agriculture-driven soil erosion as an example of the latter. "Areas that lose thick, rich soils are more susceptible to drying out during droughts, thus making the droughts even worse than they would have been."
In 2019, Steiger co-authored a comprehensive study which appeared in the journal, Nature. Using ice cores, coral samples, historical records and other lines of evidence, his team reviewed the history of climate shifts — large and small — over the past two millennia.
During that swath of time, there were a number of aberrant periods, including the unusually hot "Medieval Climate Anomaly" which lasted from 800 to 1200 CE.
Most of these events were regional in nature. Yet, Steiger and his colleagues found that for 98 percent of the planet, the single hottest period during the last 2,000 years was the late 20th century, when global temperatures were absolutely soaring.
So let's do a quick recap. More than 20 centuries of human history, our forebears never had to withstand any climate-related phenomenon that was as universally impactful — or frankly, alarming — as modern-day climate change.
Aren't we lucky?
This story originally appeared in HowStuffWorks. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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