Global warming used to be a popular buzzword particularly in the media but now it is often used interchangeably with climate change. Yet, they are actually unique processes and should be used carefully as they mean very different things. So what is global warming?
To some, it may sound silly to answer such an obvious question as ‘what is global warming’? After all, global warming pretty much does what it says on the tin; it describes the Earth getting warmer.
More accurately, it refers to the upward trend in global average temperatures in modern history. In other words, when you take the average temperature across the world, it has been increasing over time.
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What is Global Warming: Causes?
It is all down to human activities and consumption in modern history.
In modern society, humans have utilised coal for fuel and we have been burning it to power industry for hundreds of years, with production accelerating during the onset of the industrial revolution.
This in turn releases greenhouse gases into our atmosphere such as carbon dioxide. By not leaving coal underground, modern society has allowed excess greenhouse gases to build up in our atmosphere at a rate never seen in the Earth’s history.
This has exacerbated the planet’s natural ‘greenhouse effect’ which has resulted in our planet warming on an unprecedented scale.
It is termed the ‘greenhouse effect’ because gases like carbon dioxide trap sunlight in our atmosphere. It is a vital process that creates a warm and stable atmosphere on our planet – perfect for life.
In fact, without these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the Earth would be an inhospitably cold place and unsuitable for life on Earth as we know it.
However, when there are too many of these gases it causes the Earth to heat up like a greenhouse, hence why carbon dioxide and other gases are termed greenhouse gases.
The over reliance upon fossil fuels has been driving global warming as greenhouse gases naturally disperse evenly across the Earth resulting in the average temperatures across the world experiencing an increase.
But coal is just one of the fossil fuels that causes global warming. Oil and natural gas are other major polluters that drives warmer temperatures by releasing greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.
And the plot thickens further as carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas that causes warming. For example, methane is a much more dangerous and potent gas as it can trap more sunlight than carbon dioxide.
In fact, there are a whole host of greenhouse gases and even water vapour is classed as one too. However, carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas in our atmosphere and hence why it is mostly held responsible for global warming.
Yet, as established the drivers of global warming are from human impact. Our modern society has made it a requirement to utilise fossil fuels for electricity and transport. But it goes deeper.
By removing plants that photosynthesis from our planet we are removing the natural processes that remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere en masse.
Therefore deforestation and the destruction of environments are also cause of global warming. It is for this reason that agriculture is often labelled responsible for a significant proportion of warming as our need for more land for agriculture has removed forests and natural environments.
What is global warming and the level of warming according to leading authorities? Well, using a similar definition the IPCC estimates that human activities are responsible for approximately 1℃ of global warming above the pre-industrial levels (before 1900).
1℃ of Global Warming does not sound like much…
True, it doesn’t sound like much at all. So what is global warming doing?
Well, 1℃ warming is referring to the average global warming of the climate. But importantly the impacts of global warming are felt disproportionately around the world.
In other words, an average temperature increase of 1℃ for example can lead to much more intense temperature changes in some parts of the world while others may feel the average.
It highlights how uneven global warming really is.
For example, I am sure we all remember the original poster boy for global warming; the Polar Bear.
Harrowing images of a struggling polar bear lost in the Arctic with a changing environment around him used to be commonplace.
This is in reference to something known as ‘Arctic amplification’, whereby although global warming temperatures are at 1℃ increases. The arctic actually experiences much higher average increases in temperature.
In other words, the temperatures in the Arctic are amplified.
This is the case in other locations too. In fact, it is estimated that one-fifth of all humans live in areas that are already experiencing warming greater than 1.5℃.
In the early days of global warming coverage, it was often reported that the entire globe was experiencing warmer temperatures, hence the term ‘global warming’. However, this is not strictly true and it has resulted in climate change now being the go-to word.
So what is global warming and the link to Climate Change?
The distinction between global warming and climate change highlights how climate change is in reference to the climate, while global warming is only referring to warmer temperatures.
Although this may sound obvious, it is perhaps something that we overlook when thinking about the complexity of climate change and taking a step back to consider this simple idea can really help to think of the climate in general.
Importantly, our climate is comprised of many different aspects including but not limited to temperature, precipitation (rain/snow), humidity and atmospheric pressure.
And all these aspects are changing due to the introduction of so many greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. It is not solely responsible for global warming.
In fact, some regions in the world are predicted to experience wetter climates as a result of climate change as opposed to just warmer climates.
In addition, some parts are even experiencing colder climates over time, which has been termed the “warming hole” in the US.
Therefore both of these examples will experience climate change not necessarily global warming.
When answering ‘what is global warming’ or ‘what is climate change’, the link between them is that human actions are driving them both.
We hope ‘what is global warming’ has painted a clearer picture and allows you to distinguish the two distinct processes. To read more about climate change, click here.