Global warming vs climate change: What’s the difference?

Guest post by Saurab Babu. Saurab is a storyteller. He also has a burning passion to help simplify the complex world of environmental sciences. He combines the two passions on his environment blog, Eco-intelligent.


“Oh my god! It is so cold!” my friend in America remarked during a Skype call last December on Christmas.

“Yeah!” I said. “I saw the weather reports. You’ve had a really harsh winter this year!”

My friend replied, “Yeah man. And people are saying we’ve got global warming and climate change going on. Haha.”

That spoiled my Christmas completely.


One of the reasons that many believe that climate change is not real is because the place they live in has gotten colder. They think this because we have, unfortunately, mixed up global warming and climate change.

We use these terms interchangeably, and they have become the same thing in the minds of the general public. So, if suddenly we experience a harsh winter, global warming becomes a hoax and therefore climate change is also a hoax!

Today, we will see how global warming and climate change are NOT the same thing. We will see why if it’s getting colder where you live, it still means climate change is very real.

What is global warming?

Global warming is exactly what it sounds like: the average temperatures on Earth is increasing, making it warmer than it used to be.

Earth receives and emits energy into space, which manifests in the form of heat. This “heat” determines Earth’s temperature.

Usually, the amount of energy received and sent back is equal. This keeps the energy (and therefore temperature) on Earth constant.

Global warming vs climate change

Sometimes, Earth can send back more energy than it receives. This makes the Earth cooler, and the process is called global cooling.

Global warming vs climate change: What’s the difference?
Global cooling

Other times, Earth can send back less energy than it receives. When this happens, the Earth’s temperature increases. This is global warming.

Global warming vs climate change: What’s the difference?
Global warming

What could change the amount of energy received or sent back?

There are 4 major reasons why the amount of energy received or sent back could change:

1.       The Sun can release less or more energy (Around Feb, 2020 we heard something known as “Sun Lockdown“)

2.       The Earth’s path around the Sun could change. This is called the Milankovitch cycle. If the Earth got closer to the Sun, it would receive more energy and vice versa.

3.       The Earth’s tilt on its axis could change.

4.       The Earth’s surface and atmosphere could absorb/reflect energy differently.

These reasons together to determine the total energy available on Earth.


Alright. So, what is climate change?

Wait. Before we dive into climate change, we need to understand what “climate” means.

Okay…..what is climate?

All that you experience during the day—the temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind—is called weather. Weather is constantly changing every day, every month, throughout the year.

But even though it is constantly changing, there are common weather patterns we experience in each place. We know that New Delhi is hot in the summer, really cold in the winter. We know that Shimla is relatively cool in the summer, and very cold in the winter. Shimla gets snowfall between November and February. Mumbai is a coastal city, which is usually hot and very humid. It receives a lot of rain during the monsoon, but it doesn’t rain as much the rest of the year.

The weather patterns we observe in a place over a long period of time (30 years or more) is called climate.  Climate includes temperature and rainfall. Unlike weather, climate is predictable.

Now we can talk about climate change.


Finally. What is climate change?

When the weather patterns in an area starts to fluctuate and becomes different from what we are used to for the last 30 years or more, we call it climate change.

The fluctuation can mean that an area can get hotter than what is known, or colder. The area could get wetter, or drier. The duration of summer and winter could change.

Climate change is not just about increasing temperatures. It is about fluctuating temperature, rain, snow, humidity. Everything about “climate” in your area changes!


The next time you see or hear someone claim that climate change is a hoax because it’s getting cold, this is what you should tell them!


What could change the climate?

The climate on Earth is controlled by the total energy (or heat) the atmosphere holds within it at any given time. When the total energy held in the atmosphere changes, the climate on Earth also changes.
Energy in the Earth’s atmosphere could change because of any of the 4 reasons I explained above, which then causes the climate to change.
In fact, these reasons together have caused the climate to change since the time Earth has had an atmosphere!

Different areas on Earth experience different climate because the total energy is distributed differently throughout the Earth’s surface.

Here’s a simple example:

In the summer, the Indian landmass receives more energy from the Sun and becomes very hot. Hot air rises, creating a low-pressure system. Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean in the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter and receives less energy. The air is cooled, creating a high-pressure system. This massive pressure difference between the Indian Ocean and the Indian landmass causes winds to flow from the ocean to the land. The wind flows over the ocean, gathers up moisture along the way, and brings monsoon to the Indian subcontinent.


So, what’s the link between global warming and climate change?

When the Earth receives more energy, it traps more heat (global warming). This increases the total energy within the Earth’s atmosphere. This increase in total energy causes the climate to change (climate change).

It’s a cause-effect relationship. Global warming is one of the causes of climate change.

The opposite is also true. If, for example, the ice cover on Earth suddenly increased, more energy would be reflected than it would be absorbed. This would decrease the heat in the atmosphere (global cooling), again causing climate change.


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This all sounds natural. Where do humans come into the picture?

Scientists believe that we have influenced the 4th reason why the total energy on Earth changes: “The Earth’s surface and atmosphere could absorb/reflect energy differently.”

By releasing greenhouse gases, we have changed the atmosphere’s composition, making it trap more heat. This causes global warming, which in turn, causes climate change.


I really hope this clears up any confusion you had!

If it didn’t, I am happy to hear you out. Please hit the comments below!

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