Are Climate Change and Global Warming the Same Thing?

Global Warming Is Only One Symptom of Climate Change

illustration of the Earth in a frying pan
Meriel Jane Waissman/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Global warming and climate change are science's odd couple -- you hardly hear one mentioned without the other. But much like the confusion that surrounds climate science, this pair is often misunderstood and misused. Let's take a look at what each of these two terms really means, and how (even though they're often used as synonyms) they're in fact two very different events.

The incorrect interpretation of climate change: A change (usually an increase) in our planet's air temperatures.

Climate Change Is Non-specific

The true definition of climate change is just as it sounds, a change in long-term weather trends -- be that rising temperatures, cooling temperatures, changes in precipitation, or what have you. By itself, the phrase carries no presumptions about how the climate is changing, only that a change is occurring.

What's more, these changes could be the result of natural external forces (like an increase or decrease in solar sunspot or Milankovitch Cycles); natural internal processes (like volcanic eruptions or changes in ocean circulations); or human-caused or "anthropogenic" effects (like the burning of fossil fuels). Again, the phrase "climate change" doesn't specify the reason for the change.

The incorrect interpretation of global warming: Warming due to a human-induced increase in greenhouse gas emissions (like carbon dioxiode).

Global Warming is One Type of Climate Change

Global warming describes an increase in Earth's average temperature over time.

It doesn't mean that temperatures will rise by the same amount everywhere. Neither does it mean that everywhere in the world will get warmer (some locations may not). It simply means that when you consider the Earth as a whole, its average temperature is increasing.

This increase could be due to natural or unnatural forces such as an increase in greenhouse gases, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels.

(Accelerated warming can be measured in Earth's atmosphere and oceans. Evidence for global warming can be seen in retreating ice caps, dry lakes, increased habitat reduction for animals (think of the now-infamous polar bear on a lone iceberg), global temperature rises, shifts in weather, coral bleaching, sea-level rise and more.)

Why the Mixup?

If climate change and global warming are two very different things, why do we use them interchangeably? Well, when we talk about climate change we're usually referring to global warming because our planet is currently experiencing climate change in the form of rising temperatures.

And as we know from monikers like "FLOTUS" and "Kimye," the media loves blending words together. It's easier to use climate change and global warming as synonyms (even if it is scientifically incorrect!) than it is to say both. Perhaps climate change and global warming will get its own portmanteau in the near future? How does "clowarming" sound?

So What's the Correct Verbiage?

If you want to be scientifically correct when talking climate topics, you should say that Earth's climate is changing in the form of global warming.

According to scientists, it is highly likely that both are being driven by unnatural, human-caused reasons.

Edited by Tiffany Means