Behind the Forecast: Difference between climate change and global warming

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Updated: Dec. 27, 2019 at 9:00 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The terms "climate change" and "global warming" are often used interchangeably but have distinct definitions.

First, let's start with the term weather. Weather references conditions that occur in a localized area over a short time (from seconds to days). Rain, tornadoes, floods, and clouds are examples of weather.

Climate applies to long-term regional or global averages of temperatures, rainfall, and humidity across years or decades.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines global warming as the “long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900).”

Global warming focuses on the changes in global average surface temperatures caused by human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, which increases the overall amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Geochemist Wallace Broecker was the first to use the term in a 1975 article. Until that point, “global warming” was referred to as “inadvertent climate modification.”

Since the pre-industrial era, human activity has increased the planet's global average temperature by 1.8°F. While a few degrees does not seem like much, it can have significant impacts on our day-to-day weather.

Just because the planet’s average temperature may increase, that does not mean that every single location on Earth will see warmer temperatures or the temperature will increase by the same amount everywhere.


Climate change is the long-term change in the average weather patterns that are typical for a local, region, or the globe; these changes can be natural or human-induced.

Human activities that contribute to climate change include urbanization, fossil fuel burning, agriculture, deforestation, and many others. Natural processes that contribute to climate change include volcanic activity, mountain growth, El Nino and La Nina, changes in solar output, and shifts in the planet's orbit.

So, this means that climate change covers not only global warming but also its side effects.

It's important to note that temperatures aren't the only thing to be influenced by a changing climate.

This figure shows the total amount of radiative forcing caused by human activities—including...
This figure shows the total amount of radiative forcing caused by human activities—including indirect effects—between 1750 and 2011. Radiative forcing is calculated in watts per square meter, which represents the size of the energy imbalance in the atmosphere. Each colored bar represents scientists’ best estimate, while the thin black bars indicate the likely range of possibilities. The natural change in the energy received from the sun over this time period is provided for reference.(United States Environmental Protection Agency)

Climate change may cause wild temperature swings, but rising sea levels and changes to precipitation patterns may be more impactful.

Sometimes a hot day is just a hot day. However, there are ways that human activity exacerbates that heat. For example, concrete and asphalt in our cities trap more heat than grass and tree; this is an example of the urban heat island effect. These darker surfaces absorb more sunlight than more reflective surfaces, which increases the heating that occurs; this is why Louisville tends to be significantly warmer than it's surroundings.

When increased greenhouse gases trap additional heat in our atmosphere, this leads to higher temperatures. These higher temperatures in polar regions melt large ice fields and glaciers, exposing darker, less reflective ground. The ground absorbs more sunlight than ice, raising temperatures and causing more ice to melt. More heat and moisture released into the atmosphere from this melting can lead to significant fluctuations in precipitation and precipitation type in that area; that’s climate change.

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