Climate Change Versus Global Warming

We’ve been hearing about it for years and now we are finally seeing it happen: climate change! Or is it global warming? Aren’t they the same thing? Well, not quite. So let’s take a closer look at some questions you and your students may want answers too.  

1: Are Global Warming and Climate Change the same? 

Answer: No, and it can be confusing to use them interchangeably when teaching. Global Warming refers to the average rise in temperatures of Earth’s climate system and is usually measured by averaging the increase in Earth’s global temperature.  Climate Change is the average change in weather patterns (including precipitation, temperature, humidity, and extreme weather events) measured over the course of decades. Generally, scientists talk about “climate change,” because it encompasses all the varied climate consequences of a warmer globe. 

2: Is this warming period part of the Earth’s natural cycles? 

Answer: No, this warming period is abnormal because it is the hottest it has been in 2,000 years and encompasses the entire planet, a truly global phenomenon. Whereas the “little ice age” and “warm period” that occurred in the last 1,000 years were neither as intense or global. Also, due to our knowledge of the greenhouse effect and records of emissions, we know human activity is the primary driver of global warming. Anthropogenic, or human-driven, climate change has caused dramatic change across the planet including everything from sea level rise to where our vegetables can be grown.

3: How do you measure temperatures from decades ago to see the climate is changing? 

Answer:  The answer is in paleoclimatology. Scientists study layers of glacial ice cores, tree rings, and coral reefs to understand what the climate looked like before we began recording it. Through their chemical composition, thickness, colorations, and other markers, scientists discover a story about climates of the past. This is how we can measure temperatures to know what we are experiencing, is in fact, an abnormal global phenomenon. 

4: Why does it still get really cold where I live if the climate is warming?

Answer: One or two abnormally cold winters in one region of the planet are not enough to “disprove” global climate change. A change in climate is defined in decades, not seasons like daily weather. In fact, the heating in the jet stream can exacerbate extreme cold weather events such as the United States polar vortex in early 2019

5: Will Climate Change even affect me? 

Answer: Yes, but how depends on who you are and where you live. If you live in the desert southwest, you are experiencing intense, longer drought conditions and heatwaves. If you live in the midwest,  pattern shifts in flooding and precipitation are impacting livelihoods linked to farming. Allergy seasons can shift and lengthen. More frequent, intense tropical storms and hurricanes affect communities in coastal regions.  Wildfires are increasing in areas of the nation already prone to them. This article is a great example of how climate change is felt by Alaskans, who have an entirely different set of environmental factors at play than the continental United States. Employment opportunities in sectors linked to extracting fossil fuel may shift or go away in favor of employment in renewable energy industries. How and where we source foods like bananas, chocolate, and coffee will change as well.  

Everyone is affected, and while the United States has more adaptive capacity than other countries, we will still feel the impact of climate change. For example, if you are from a very wealthy household, it is likely you won’t experience the impacts as dramatically as your peers who are at a lower socioeconomic level. The more money you have, means you have better purchasing power which can shield you from these effects — if the price of bananas go up from .20 cents to $2.00 per banana, you will likely still be able to enjoy that fruit. If you want to find graphs and overview the global impacts of climate change, look at this report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

 6:  Are we doomed? 

Answer: No! To resign to imminent doom is to sign away our agency to change. Yes, we have a long way to go. Yes, even if we stop destructive habits and systems now, the planet will continue heating for at least a few more decades. But, we can stop worst-case-scenario temperature rise and adapt to the present challenges by choosing to take action at individual, community, and systemic levels.  Educating students is a great place to start! Knowledge is power and starting with the basics is key to showing that small changes can lead to big waves. 

These “small changes” can be anything from a Meatless Monday challenge at home or school to a common resource pool of pencils in your classroom. Empower students with basic knowledge and allow them space to become their own agents for change.