Is there a difference between global warming and climate change? - The Years Project

Ask Joe

Joseph Romm, Ph.D. Chief Science Advisor

Is there a difference between global warming and climate change?

Global warming generally refers to the observed warming of the planet due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change generally refers to all of the various long-term changes in our climate, including sea level rise, extreme weather, and ocean acidification.

In 1896, a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, concluded that if we double atmospheric CO2 levels to 560 parts per million (from preindustrial levels of 280), then surface temperature levels would rise several degrees. The first published use of the term “global warming” appears to have been in 1975 by the climatologist Wallace Broecker in an article in the journal Science titled, “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” In June 1988, global warming became the more popular term after NASA scientist James Hansen told Congress in a widely publicized hearing that “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.”

The term “climate change” dates at least as far back as 1939. A closely related term, “climatic change,” was also common, as in the 1955 scientific article, “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change” by Gilbert Plass. By 1970, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper titled “Carbon Dioxide and its Role in Climate Change.” When the world’s major governments set up an advisory body in 1988 of top scientists and other climate experts to review the scientific literature every few years, they named it the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

Climate change or global climate change is generally considered a “more scientifically accurate term,” than global warming, as NASA explained in 2008, in part because “Changes to precipitation patterns and sea level are likely to have much greater human impact than the higher temperatures alone.”8 When you consider all of the impacts scientists have observed in recent decades—including the acidifying ocean, worsening wildfires, and more intense deluges—climate scientists are likely to continue favoring the term climate change. In general or popular usage, global warming and climate change have become interchangeable over the past several decades, and that trend is likely to continue this century, especially as the warming itself becomes more and more prominent.