January 6, 2014

Global Warming vs. Climate Change: What’s the difference?

by Heather Falconer

The snow. The ice. The Arctic temperatures. For many people in the United States, this past week has been focused on digging out, deicing, and making sure the heating is working. That’s because large storms have been moving across and up the country, mixing with cold air masses from the Arctic, and blanketing major portions of the country in snow and ice. Record snowfalls and low temperatures have been recorded, with more expected in the next week due to another large mass of Arctic air making its way southward.

And as is typical when we see such extreme cold weather, the global warming skeptics have come out of the woodwork. “Temperatures have not risen in 15 years,” they say, “it’s getting cooler. If the Earth is warming, why do we have record cold?”

Is the International Panel on Climate Change lying to us? The answer to this last question is a resounding “No.”

There are many problems with the discussions on weather and climate in the mass media, on both sides. The falsehood that there is a debate about global warming in the scientific community, for example, continues despite all evidence to the contrary (see our Scientific Controversy module). But one of the biggest problems is the misuse of language: Climate change and global warming are not the same.

The Keeling Curve

We hear and read the words used interchangeably, and that causes a lot of confusion – particularly when we talk about the weather. When we talk about global warming, what we are referring to is a trend. The average surface temperatures on Earth have been increasing over time, with a direct correlation to human industrial developments. (You can learn more about this by reading our Carbon Cycle module.) This trend of increasing surface temperatures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, causes climate patterns to change.

This brings us to the term ‘climate change.’ In scientific circles, climate refers to meteorological conditions in a given area, in general – or to put it more simply, the weather conditions (average rainfall, snowfall, summer and winter temperatures…) that occur in a specific place (like New York City) over a long period of time. So when we speak about climate change, we are speaking about “significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time” (EPA). These changes are not measured on a year-to-year basis, but over the course of decades.

The extreme cold being experienced across the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast is not proof that global warming is a myth. It is data that contributes to the body of evidence of climate change. Just as severe heat and drought in Australia and parts of the Indian continent contribute data in support of this same argument.

Learn More

To learn more about the role of carbon in global warming, read The Carbon Cycle and Scientific Controversy.

Read more about climate change and variability at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Read weather predictions for the coming year at the Climate Prediction Center.

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.