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What’s the difference between climate change and global warming?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that climate change and global warming mean the same thing. The press worldwide have taken a long time to use the right terminology for the right events, and some still don’t quite get it. So what’s the difference between climate change and global warming? Global warming is just one part of climate change. Although for years they’ve been used interchangeably, one actually encompasses the other!

Planet earth viewed from space showing the melting ice caps due to global warming and the dark vastness fo space in teh blackness that surrounds our blue and green planet.

Global Warming refers to the global rise in temperatures over a period of time. We’ve kept good records since the 1970’s but we do have some data from well before this, and we can see that since the 1880’s global temperatures have risen by about 1.15 degrees. Initially, as far back as the 1800’s, we talked about global warming as this is what scientists theorised would be the biggest danger to us as a species (it's key to remember that when we talk about planet health we fundamentally mean the health of the planet as a place where we, as humans, can survive and thrive, along with the millions of other species that our behaviour affects) but over time it became clear that the knock on effects to the water cycle, sea level and biodiversity, as well as wider climatic changes would be a far greater concern, so the term climate change began to spread more widely.

Climate Change refers to the broader climatic and weather events we are seeing over a period of time. It includes global warming AND the side effects of this warming. Receding glaciers, melting sea ice, increases in extreme weather events are just a few things that climate change refers to.

The Consequences of Global Warming and Climate Change

When global warming and climate change became household terms it was difficult for some of us to see the problem with a little bit of warming but over recent years it has become very clear how bad things could get if we let this trend continue. Next up we’ll take a look at just some of the ways global warming and climate change will affect our planet (and us).

Severe Weather

In 2023 we’ve seen some of the heaviest snow fall and highest temperatures we ever recorded, in fact July 2023 was the hottest month ever on record (0.33 degrees hotter than the previous hottest recorded in 2019). There have been devastating wildfires across five continents, flooding on almost every continent and the lowest ever level of Antarctic sea ice.

Other severe weather events which have been increasing are cyclones, tornados and storms.

Food Shortages

As our weather becomes less predictable and more extreme, crops will be severely affected. The land on which we can grow crops and raise animals is affected longer term than just a single storm meaning huge swathes of land that were previously productive will be unusable. Repeated storms in Spain affect our UK salad supply, flooding on the continent pushes up grain prices as yields decrease and coffee prices are skyrocketing as suitable growing land and conditions decline.

This article from the National Geographic explores the relationship between climate change and the future coffee and other popular foods.

Ocean Acidification

The oceans are our largest carbon store, they naturally absorb carbon and have done for millennia, however as the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increases so does the carbon in the oceans. This decreases the PH of the water, making it more acidic. This increased acidity affects what can successfully live and breed in the oceans waters. Coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate and support a huge number of species, but perhaps more drastic is that as acidification increases it becomes harder for calcareous organisms to form and reproduce. In short this means that the bottom of the food change is lost, affecting the entire ecosystem! Bizarrely it can also confuse fish, leading them to get lost and unable to return to feeding and breeding grounds.

Ocean acidification = loss of biodiversity, and food shortages

A dying coral reef with the sun shining down through the ocean

Loss of Biodiversity

It’s not only ocean life that is affected by climate change and global warming. Our entire ecosystem is at risk, from the tiniest zooplankton to the largest mammals, the algae in mud to the redwoods of California, nothing is exempt. Why does this matter? Life on Earth is a huge and complex system which is reliant on every member of the ecosystem. Simply put without the diversity of life on the planet we don't have a food chain or nutrient cycle.

Refugees and Migration

As the UNHCR states 'The climate crisis is a human crisis'. More and more people are being forced from their homelands due to a lack of resources to cope with the newly hostile conditions caused by climate change. Limited natural resources, dwindling water supplies and conditions unable to sustain crops and livestock are leading millions of people to be displaced across the world.

A good place to start with understanding climate change and migration is this UNHCR article on Climate Change and Disaster Displacement

What’s next for climate change?

Climate change and global warming are having dire consequences on earth however the story doesn’t end here. We, as humans, have had a huge effect on the planet and it’s ecosystems. Mostly a negative effect but that can change. Together we have the power make positive changes.

Wind turbines in the setting sun on a farm. The wind turbines are large white commercial grade turbines, one is so close to the camera that we can only see the part of the sails and another sits further away to the right of the close up wind turbine. Renewable energy from the wind turbines helps the farm reduce their carbon impact d

More than 70 countries have set Net Zero targets, 1000’s of businesses and organisations are also committing to carbon reduction schemes and Net Zero. Even as individuals we have the ability to make a difference by making carbon aware decisions; choosing green energy, getting involved in a community energy project, reducing car usage and recycling whenever possible. Want to learn more about your carbon footprint? Join our climate essentials or carbon literacy training!


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