The terms global warming and climate change are often used as if they were synonymous. In fact, global warming is just one aspect of climate change, which encompasses a wide range of events and effects occurring around the globe. Understanding the fundamental differences between what is meant by climate change and what falls under the heading of global warming can provide a framework for addressing these issues effectively.
What Is Global Warming?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), global warming is the result of a buildup in greenhouse gases that traps heat in the lower atmosphere of the Earth. This results in a gradual increase in average temperatures around the world. According to the National Resources Defense Council, some of the events for which global warming is directly responsible include the following:
- Increased temperatures caused by global warming are also causing heat waves in areas unused to extreme summer heat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 600 deaths occur every year as the result of extreme heat.
- Global warming has also had an impact on air pollution by increasing the ozone found in surface-level air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds can react to sunlight to create ground level ozone. An overview published in the scholarly journal Frontiers in Immunology predicts that by 2050, global warming could increase the number of ozone-warning days in the United States by 68 percent. This would significantly impact the breathability of outdoor air not only for those with respiratory illnesses but also for the general public.
- The melting of the ice caps is also a result of global warming and has caused sea levels to rise around the world. The 2014 National Climate Assessment found that sea levels have risen about eight inches since 1880. By 2100, figures indicate that sea levels may increase by as much as four feet because of increases in average global temperatures.
- Rising global temperatures are also having a negative effect on wildlife. Many species have already been lost because of increasing temperatures in their native ecosystems. More may become extinct if the progress of global warming is not stopped.
Effects of Global Warming on Wildlife
The National Geographic reported in 2016 that the Bramble Cay melomys, a small mammal that resided on an island located in the Great Barrier Reef, was believed to be the first mammalian casualty of global warming. The World Wildlife Federation has identified other animals at risk because of global warming, including the following species:
- Polar bears
- Green sea turtles
- Asian and African elephants
- Mountain gorillas
- Giant pandas
- Snow leopards
In May 2019, the United Nations (UN) released a report indicating that roughly one million species of animals and plants are at risk for extinction. According to the UN, the population of native species in land-based biosystems has fallen by 20 percent or more. Most of this decline has taken place since 1900. The report also states that 680 vertebrate species have been lost to extinction since the 1500s. Climate change and global warming are important factors in the increasing risk of extinction among animals and plants.
What Is Climate Change?
Climate change covers a wide range of changes in the weather, climate, and surface temperatures of the Earth. Global warming plays an important role in climate change. Other factors, however, are also responsible for the effects of climate change on the environment:
- Extreme weather events are becoming more common and more costly. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, there have been 69 storm events and natural disasters that cost $1 billion or more since 2015. Of these events, 14 took place in 2019. Forbes lists Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, floods in the Midwest, wildfires and drought in California and numerous tornadoes as some of the most destructive events attributable to global warming in 2019.
- Pollution and climate change are also increasing the acidification of the oceans, which can lead to mass die-offs of shellfish and other marine animals. This situation is believed to be the result of emissions and other pollutants that are changing the chemical makeup of the world's oceans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in the past 200 years, the pH level of the surface waters of the ocean has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which represents an increase in acidity of about 30 percent.
- The USGS predicts that climate change will reduce the amount of snowpack present in mountain ranges in the western half of the United States. This will likely increase rainfall in the areas around the mountains for a limited amount of time.
The Difference Between Global Warming and Climate Change
Perhaps the easiest way to make the distinction between global warming and climate change is to consider global warming as just one component in the larger issue of climate change. Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, other pollutants and the destruction of the rain forests also play significant roles in climate change around the world.
Taking steps to address global warming and the other factors that are speeding climate change can help to protect the environment. By reducing the use of fossil fuels and investing in green-friendly technologies, it may be possible to create a better future for people and animals alike.