Climate change vs global warming – how long do we have

climate change vs global warming

Table of Contents

Goals and Objectives

  • Understand global warming and climate change
  • See what role greenhouse gases play in climate change
  • Discover what human actions cause acceleration of global warming
  • See the predictions on how long do we have before achieving 1.5 C threshold 
  • Think how can you become more proactive in stopping global warming

TL;DR

Climate Change and Global Warming are not one and the same. Global warming can be considered the upward trend of the current climate change. The major culprit of this phenomenon is greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases naturally occur in our environment, but since Industrial Revolution people play a huge role in increasing the presence of these gases in the atmosphere. To preserve the planet, we should not let the global average temperatures surpass 1.5 C increase. The most effective way to do so is to engage the entire global society, starting with broader climate education, in which you can play an active role

What is Climate Change?

Climate change is a topic that you hear about every day now, but it is not a new phenomenon. People often speak of climate change and global warming as the same thing, but are they? First, let’s talk a bit more about what exactly climate change is, to understand the basics before we onboard on the discovery of more advanced climate-related topics.

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Climate change definition

To understand climate change, first you need to understand what the climate is. How would you define the word climate? You probably think it is weather specific to a region in which it occurs, which is correct. But climate, unlike the weather, implies long-term outlook. When you speak about the weather, that’s the conditions you expect to get today, tomorrow, next month or in a few months. Climate has a much longer span. Besides that, the weather is usually future-looking, whereas climate is based on past events.

climate change vs global warming

Climate is an average of the weather occurrences over time in a specific region. Among scientists, 30-years span[1] is used in the majority of the cases to assess the climate conditions. It is, therefore, average weather for the past few years that we call the climate.

A few indicators help to measure climate. These are:

  • temperature
  • humidity
  • wind speed
  • weather events (storms, hurricanes, etc.)
  • water salinity
  • precipitation
  • and other weather-related events.  

What is happening to Earth

Climate does not stay the same, it changes. Weather events which occurr naturally on the planet are the reasons why our climate changed so many times in history. Climate can also change in response to major one-off events (such as volcanic eruption). The natural rate of the change of our planet is very slow and has self-regulating properties. But human activities also impact climate change, making it faster and more unpredictable.

Because of Global Warming, climate change now accelerates (you can also say that global warming is one of the results of climate change and its current trend or pattern). 

Global warming refers mostly to the level of heat in the atmosphere, which affects the temperature in different regions of the world, making it higher. 

climate change vs global warming

Rising global temperatures trigger the melting of glaciers and increased sea levels. Global warming, ocean acidity, water levels, or seasons shift are therefore not synonyms for climate change, but the events that constitute it. Think of Climate Change as an umbrella term for all the changes that take place in our natural atmospheric conditions over the long-term.

What is Global Warming

Global warming is one of the indicators and current trends in climate change. Climate is broader term and includes more variables. Global warming on the other hand, addresses temperatures specifically and their historical change, which is in the upward trend now. That’s why it’s called global warming and not global cooling. 

The increased temperature of the Earth’s surface is attributed to greenhouse gases. Since the industrial revolution their accumulation in the atmosphere accelerated a lot. Because of their effect on planet’s warming the phenomenon is called the greenhouse effect. After the industrial revolution, people started to produce more, burning fossil fuels. This is why the warming effect started to accelerate every year more and more.

Global warming and rising temperature

The weather that we experience fluctuates every day and is different in every region. The average temperature is also changing year on year, and it doesn’t follow the straight-line pattern. 

Temperatures fluctuate a lot and even have their mini-cycles. Some years are colder compared to the previous ones, while others are warmer. It is not that every year is always on average warmer than the previous. However, when you put the data for many years next to each other, you can see that the long-term trend is an upward line.

To measure global warming, scientists use the average temperature of the entire planet. This is the amount of heat that our atmosphere absorbs from the sun to warm the oceans and land. Since 1880 global average temperatures rose by an estimated 0.9 °C. At first this does not sound like a lot, given how much weather changes every day. But on the global scale this actually equates to an enormous amount of additional heat trapped in the atmosphere!

Global warming effects

More heat in the atmosphere causes ice caps to melt. This has an effect on how much heat the earth reflects back to space. Less ice also means more water and rising sea levels, which sink coastal cities. 

Climate change events cause more fluctuations of ocean temperatures. This, in turn, leads to extreme weather conditions – hurricanes, tornados, and other weather anomalies.

The Earth has been warming and cooling naturally throughout its existence due to the natural events. However, since the advent of the industrial revolution, on top of the natural factors contributing to climate change, we got one more – human contribution. 

Pollution that our consumption causes directly or indirectly (factories’ emissions are a result of the consumption demand) derails natural weather fluctuations and put into danger the existence of all life on Earth.

Sources of greenhouse gases 

effects of global warming

The greenhouse effect is a natural state of being of the planet. Natural events such as volcanic eruptions, can cause global warming effect by increasing the concentration of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But it is our lifestyle which adds the majority of pollutants that accelerate global warming. Let’s see what human activities contribute to the current climate change the most.

Burning Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are natural fuel reserves that are formed over millions of years from dead plants and organisms. These natural fuels contain energy which they captured from the sun and which we can use when we burn them. 

But fossil fuels were not only capturing energy from the sun during their life, they were also storing carbon. When we burn these fuels we release the carbon which they stored in the atmosphere. CO2 from fossil fuels is the most significant contribution to global warming caused by humans.

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Deforestation

Plants capture CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen in the process called photosynthesis. When you cut plants or trees, the carbon that they stored leaks into the air and forms CO2. The most carbon is released when the plants are burned (hence tree burning practices and use of trees for fuel contributes a lot of pollution).

Moreover, fewer plants mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As plants need CO2 to live they are very effective “air purifiers”. If we cut a lot of purifiers, our air is less pure from CO2. The forests are called carbon sinks not without the reason, but deforestation makes the sinks smaller. 

Livestock

Cows, goats, sheep, pigs, horses, and other animals emit methane to the atmosphere. This is a natural gas which they produce when digest their food. Methane is a greenhouse gas and it is much more potent than CO2 in trapping the heat. 

With increasing population and demand for meat, there’s now more livestock we have on the planet. And it’s not only additional amounts of methane that livestock adds to the atmosphere. It is also deforestation, because in place of forests farmers prefer to set livestock farms. People also clear forest areas to grow feed for animals, and as you remember less forests is more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Agriculture

To have better yields, and higher food harvest, companies use synthetic fertilizers. One of the effects of this practice is the release of nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere. Similarly to carbon dioxide and methane, nitrous oxide is another greenhouse gas, which captures heat in the atmosphere. Using manure for fertilizing is not much better. It adds to methane (CH4) and N2O to the atmosphere. 

Do you know which crops cause the most emission of greenhouse gases? It’s rice paddies, areas to grow staple food for many countries. Rice cultivation releases vast amounts of methane and some nitrous oxide. 

After harvesting, the emissions which you can link to the consumption do not stop. Before vegetables and fruits get to the supermarket shelf, they are transported between harvesting facilities and multiple warehouses. Some foods require packaging and processing, production steps that need energy and hence fuel. Transportation and processing add a lot of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

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Industrial production 

Industrial production adds CO2 in the atmosphere, which is a result of energy burned to power the plants. Of course, if factories and plants use renewable energy sources, they have insignificant emissions. But coal, which is a fossil fuel, is much cheaper, so many use it for comfort and profitability. 

Moreover, some industries emit halocarbons. These are man-made synthetic compounds that trap a lot of heat in the atmosphere. In other words, on top of naturally occuring greenhouse gases, we also add artificial heat-trapping substances to our air.

How long do we have

How do we know when there is too much greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Based on the limits suggested by the United Nations, we should aim to cap the increase of temperature to 1.5 °C. It is just half a degree more than we currently have. What’s more, these predictions result from the analysis of the historical data. It can change any time, and not necessarily in our favor. Mother nature is too complex to predict it solely from her past behavior. Scientist discover that they constantly need to adjust their models.

Predicting Global Warming trends

To estimate how much time we have left before it’s too late, scientists use Carbon Dioxide Equivalent concentration. They sum all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere based on their Global Warming Potential (GWP) and express it in CO2 equivalents. It’s as if we only had CO2 from all the greenhouse gases sitting in the atmosphere.

If you look at this chart, you see that when we have more greenhouse gases, average temperatures are also higher. The dotted lines show predicted levels of CO2 at which global average temperatures increase by the dreaded 1.5 °C and 2 °C. It is then extrapolated to see how long do we have before this happens. You can see how close we are already.

predicting global warming trends

The chart shows the data until 2016, however, the report is from the 1st quarter of 2019. Researchers concluded that to keep the rise of the temperature below 1.5 °C we can’t let the concentration increase to more than 478 PPM of CO2 equivalents and to 545 PPM if we are to stay below 2 °C increase. These numbers show a 50% probability, which means that even at these levels, the chances to remain below the cap and exceed it are equal (nature is unpredictable). 

What should we do

So what’s with the timing? Experts predict that we can reach 1.5 °C mark in 5-16 years from 2019, and 2°C mark in 17-40 years at current pace. It is estimated that in 2016, carbon dioxide alone was responsible for 66.2% of the increase of the warming (forcing), followed by 17% contribution by methane and 8.9% of Montreal Gases (the ones depleting the ozone layer). 

The conclusion for us is to focus first of all on reducing emission of these gases in the atmosphere, with special attention given to carbon dioxide. For the change to be effective, each of us needs to play a role in it. But how can you change something that so many people are still misinformed or skeptical about? 

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I believe that we should start with wider-angle climate education. Share information related to the topic on your social media. Talk with friends and families in a friendly manner about the implications of the global warming. Lead by example and be proactive in your community.

If you are serious about assuming an active role in the health of our planet, check our Sustainability Program and become a member of the dedicated community to discuss your thoughts. 

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