Understanding the difference between climate change and global warming

Global warming and climate change are often used as synonyms, and indeed, the two are inextricably linked. However, they are not the same, and it is vital to understand how they are different so we can find appropriate solutions for each. Let us start by getting the basic definitions out of the way:

What is climate change?

Climate change refers to the entire range of changes in the planet’s weather, terrain, biodiversity and atmosphere. Global warming is included in this, along with the accelerated melting of ice around the poles, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels, increased precipitation and alterations in crop cycles and plant blooming times. All of these are a consequence of increasing global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the trapping of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Simply put, global warming is a part of climate change.

What is global warming?

Global warming refers to the increase in the planet’s temperatures over time. Between 1750 and 1880, this was documented as 0.15°C. After 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature went up by around 1°C relative to the 1951-1980 baseline. Moreover, we are at a point where temperatures are going up by 0.2°C every decade.

What is the similarity between global warming and climate change?

These terms are often used interchangeably, and they refer to similar phenomena that are occurring on Earth. Some people may prefer to use one term for different reasons.

For example, “global warming” is often used to emphasise the warming aspect of the changes, while “climate change” is used to encompass a broader range of impacts and changes occurring in the Earth’s climate.

What causes climate change and global warming?

Some climate change is natural. For instance, volcanic eruptions lead to temperature increases, greenhouse gas emissions and changes in the local soil. The intensity of the sun’s rays can change too. Human activity, however, has caused the Earth’s climate to change at a rapid and unsustainable pace – mainly because of activities that lead to global warming.

Perhaps the biggest culprit in climate change is the emission of greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal or gasoline.

Burning these releases gases like carbon dioxide and methane, known as greenhouse gases, because they trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, just as a greenhouse does. Given the vast amounts of fossil fuels we are using, especially since the mid-20th century, greenhouse gas emissions are causing temperatures to increase alarmingly.

There are two more critical contributors to climate change – agriculture and deforestation. Activities like tilling the soil, using nitrogen-rich fertilisers or rearing cattle all release greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, respectively). And when humans cut down trees, they release the carbon dioxide they had kept trapped while alive.

What are the long-term consequences of global warming and climate change

We are already observing the catastrophic effects of global warming and climate change, and more are slated to come unless we drastically course-correct over the next few years:

1. Weather extremes

Global warming is causing average temperatures to go up everywhere, leading to heat waves. These increase the chances of droughts and create conditions for wildfires to spread.

In warmer climates, there are rising sea levels and slower-moving winds, which together increase the risk of hurricanes. Plus, global warming leads to more extreme downpours, causing the risk of floods.

2. Animal extinction

Shifting weather patterns and rising temperatures will impact the natural feeding and breeding cycles of various animals, which could lead to a decline in their population.

For instance, melting the ice caps is already affecting polar bears’ ability to find enough food. And rising ocean temperatures will harm cold-water fish populations (like trout and salmon), leading to food shortages for many larger creatures. The insect population across the world has been dramatically reduced.

3. Effect on agriculture

Hotter summers will affect the ability to grow crops, including staple ones like rice and wheat. As winters become warmer, pests and insects may proliferate, further affecting food production.

4. Ocean acidification

Oceans are well able to absorb carbon dioxide, but given how much of it is in the atmosphere, absorbing it is slowly causing ocean waters to become acidic.

This impacts coral reefs, as we have already seen with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and crustaceans whose shells get eroded by the acidic effect.

What can minimise the impact of global warming and climate change?

While it can be scary to think about what climate change is doing worldwide, there are actions that individuals can take right now to reduce their impact on the planet. These include:

  • Planting trees
  • Eating more plant-based food
  • Buying carbon-neutral products whenever possible
  • Eating locally grown food rather than exotic imported items
  • Taking public transit, walking or riding a bicycle rather than driving a car
  • Reducing overall consumption to minimise your carbon footprint
  • Supporting climate change programs and initiatives by donating/volunteering
  • Raising awareness so that people around you can modify their lifestyles, join the fight and demand political and economic action to stop climate change
  • Conserving energy by reducing electricity consumption and installing energy-efficient devices wherever possible
  • Using naturally produced energy such as wind turbines or anaerobic digestion.

On the other hand, businesses can take various steps to minimise their impact on global warming and climate change:

  • Implement a robust waste management program that prioritises reducing, reusing, and recycling
  • Offset their carbon emissions by supporting renewable energy projects or reforestation initiatives
  • Set emissions reduction targets, regularly report their emissions, and engage with stakeholders on their sustainability efforts
  • Encourage employees to use public transportation, carpooling, or bikes, or by providing charging stations for electric vehicles can reduce the carbon footprint
  • Reduce their energy consumption by using energy-efficient appliances and lighting, implementing smart building controls and investing in renewable energy sources

Which is worse: climate change or global warming?

There is no objective measure to determine which one is “worse,” as the effects of climate change are widespread and interrelated and can vary in severity and implications depending on the region and the specific circumstances.

Climate change can lead to more frequent and intense heat waves, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and changes in the timing and distribution of precipitation, among other impacts. These changes can potentially result in economic, social, and political consequences that can be severe and long-lasting.

In short, “climate change” and “global warming” describe the same pressing environmental challenge. It is essential to address the root causes and find solutions to mitigate their impacts.

Over to you

Climate change is no longer possible – it is here in deadly earnest and will only worsen with time. Needless to say, both climate change and global warming are serious matters that require immediate action if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences.

It is not exaggerating to say that our survival as a species depends on what we do now to combat them. Every step we take has an impact, and it is our duty to come together and take as many positive steps as possible so we can save our home.

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