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Climate Change vs. Global Warming: Aren't They The Same Thing?

Image: Climate Change vs. Global Warming: Aren't They The Same Thing?
Cracked mud is picture at sunrise in the dried shores. ( Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images, file)

By    |   Sunday, 16 Nov 2014 12:56 PM

Journalists, scientists, and politicians have created some confusion through the way they use the terms "climate change" vs. "global warming."

Many people use the phrases interchangeably, but the terms mean different things.

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NASA says "global warming" refers specifically to the increase the Earth has seen in its average surface temperatures due to rising levels of greenhouse gases, while "climate change" is a long-term change of the climate of the Earth or one of its regions.

As a result of global warming, the Earth's average mercury reading has risen by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since 1880, with the bulk of that increase coming since 1975, according to NASA.

But global warming is only one dimension in the more general category of "climate change." Climate change involves not just average temperature but other factors that include humidity, cloudiness, and precipitation.

"Scientists have learned that raising the Earth's temperature is very likely to change many of these factors," says Climate Central. "So while global warming is what's causing it, what most people are going to notice is not necessarily warming but rather a change in climate."

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The way the phrase "climate change" is used also depends on who's using it.

"Some people want to emphasize the potentially serious consequences of the problem," Climate Central said. "Others want to convince everyone to think that it is not such a big deal, or that humans are not really causing the problem in the first place. So they choose one term or the other because they think it sounds more or less scary. But since nobody can agree about which term actually is scarier, both groups use both terms at different times."

National Public Radio uses the phrases interchangeably, a practice NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos defended in 2011. He noted that in the previous year, NPR had used the term "global warming" in 131 reports and "climate change" in 175.

Schumacher-Matos quoted Richard Harris, leading climate correspondent for NPR, as acknowledging scientists prefer the term "climate change" because it encompasses effects other than warming, including rainfall patterns, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.

But, Harris added, "Global warming is a familiar term, so we feel justified in using it as a more concrete, but less complete, expression of the phenomenon."

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Journalists, scientists, and politicians have created some confusion through the way they use the terms "climate change" vs. "global warming."
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