Global Warming vs. Climate Change: Their History and Their Differences

While similar and often used interchangeably, “global warming” and “climate change” do have distinct meanings. Understanding the differences starts with climate science and its interesting history. Filled with scientists from centuries ago who first documented the potential for the climate changes we are experiencing today, we can see the origins of the phrases global warming and climate change.

It’s funny to think about where an idea comes from. In moments of inspiration and creativity, sometimes people spontaneously come up with something new. Other times, we form distinctive memories about the first time we encounter an idea. For instance, I distinctly remember being in an introductory accounting class in college when I first learned that every shampoo brand at a grocery store has essentially the same listed ingredients. Why was I learning that in an accounting class, you ask? That’s a really good question, and I have no idea.

Then other times, maybe even most of the time, we don’t know where the ideas in our head first came from. I don’t know when I first thought, “Star Wars is awesome!” I don’t know when I first heard the expression, “Don’t let the tail wag the dog.”

I also don’t know who first told me that the phrase “climate change” started being used only after the phrase “global warming” had become politicized.

And you know another funny thing about ideas? Sometimes they are wrong.

The Science of Climate Change and the History of Climate Science

That last one is something I’ve long heard, and really had no reason to doubt. Recently though, I was curious about the origins of these phrases. So I hopped on the digital research bus known as Google and took a trip along climate change history lane. (That, I am quite certain, is a sentence that no human has ever constructed before.)

One source I found was a BBC article with bullet points of the noteworthy moments in this historical genre. A few things stand out. First, it’s remarkable to me just how long we’ve known about the greenhouse effect, whereby certain heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere retain some of the energy that is radiated out from the earth’s surface. It’s an effect that was first observed by Joseph Fourier in 1824.

Second, it was in 1896 when Svante Arrhenius from Sweden first predicted that burning coal would enhance the greenhouse effect. Admittedly, he thought this would be a good thing at the time, expecting a warmer planet would be necessary to feed a growing human population. He missed that mark, but totally nailed it when it comes to the possibility of anthropogenic global warming. That was more than a century ago!

The third thing that stands out is the omission of one particular climate scientist. Though the BBC article suggests that John Tyndall was the first scientist to prove the link between carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect in 1861 (though his Wikipedia entry states the year was 1859), I think a woman deserves that acclaim. In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote published her research showing that carbon dioxide was an effective gas for trapping heat. She was a heck of a scientist, and it’s unfortunate that she is unheralded for her contributions in this field.

Climate Change vs. Global Warming: Where the Phrases Originated

Now let’s get to climate change and global warming. In 1957, the oceanographer Roger Revelle was conducting research on how much the ocean was absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide. He and his colleagues found that the rate of absorption had been quite high, but also warned that this could change and the greenhouse effect could soon be amplified. In their words, “human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” He shared his work with a journalist from Indiana’s The Hammond Times, who then wrote that Rovelle was warning of “a large scale global warming.” From all appearances, that was the first written use of the term.

Then in 1975, global warming appeared in the title of an influential scientific paper. Wallace Broecker, a professor at Columbia University, published a paper titled “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” That appears to have been the inflection point for when climate scientists began to use the term widely, referring in particular to the warming trend that more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was expected to cause. What I find interesting is the associated use of “climatic change” in that same paper. That suggests, at least somewhat, that climate change was not an established term in that same scientific community. According to this NASA article, the term “inadvertent climate modification” had been frequently used instead.

From what I can tell, climate change as a phrase received its first scientific use in a 1979 paper titled “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment.” From the foreword of that paper - “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.” Then, in 1988, the phrase hit the big time. That was the year in which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed.

The Difference Between Climate Change and Global Warming

The history of this field shows clearly that both terms have been in the scientific lexicon for decades. There was no sudden switch from one to another, and any suggestion that climate change was meant to replace a politicized global warming is not supported by evidence. That idea that was stuck in my head, and which might have been stuck in yours too, is wrong.

What, then, is the difference between climate change and global warming? I think NASA has done great job in describing it. Global warming is the long-term warming of the planet, while climate change is the broader range of changes that are happening to our planet as a result of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as stronger hurricanes and other severe weather events. As they note, climate change is the broader term that encompasses global warming. It reminds me of something I’m currently teaching my children - “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” Global warming is a climate change, but not all climate changes are the warming of our planet.