Climate Change vs. Global Warming: What’s the Difference?

Updated: Nov. 02, 2022

The terms are similar, but they are technically not synonymous.

Whether you are a casual news reader or a bona fide scientist, you’re probably familiar with the terms “global warming” and “climate change.” Yet many people don’t understand the exact difference between them—and even use the terms interchangeably.

What is global warming?

Global warming refers to the long-term trend of rising temperatures in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, according to Lauren Olson, zero waste manager at World Centric, an advocate for regenerative ecosystems. Global warming occurs when greenhouse gases become trapped in the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm. The term “global warming” wasn’t mainstream until 1975, when American geochemist Wallace Broecker published a groundbreaking paper warning that human activity was increasing greenhouse gas levels and raising temperatures worldwide at an alarming rate. Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 2°F (or 1°C), according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

What is climate change?

Climate change, on the other hand, “covers a broad range of environmental and human-caused factors that are affecting the planet,” according to Olson. Although climate change has occurred naturally for centuries, now the climate is being altered by human activities—a trend that has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution. “The rapid increase in consumption brought on by human population growth has led to more human-made pollution that is modifying the global ecosystem in significant ways,” Olson says, such as causing oceans to warm, glaciers to shrink, and sea levels to rise. Scientists also expect to see more extreme weather patterns like floods, storms, and droughts as a result of climate change.

What’s the difference?

Whereas global warming specifically refers to the warming of the planet due to increased greenhouse gas emissions, climate change encompasses the full scope of changes caused by human activity, including global warming as well as rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and more. Put another way, “climate change is explained by the effects of global warming,” Olson says. For more eco-friendly facts from experts, read up on the 50 stats you should know about the planet we call home.

What you should remember

There may be some confusion between the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” but that does not mean they aren’t happening. In fact, both climate change and global warming “will have a significant toll on the environment or create untold human suffering if nothing is done now,” Olson says. Excessive human consumption has increased livestock populations, fossil fuel burning, tree loss, air travel, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and more—all of which speed up the effects of both climate change and global warming. The United States is one of the biggest climate change culprits.

How you can help

Unless we significantly change our lifestyles now, experts warn that the dangerous trends related to global warming and climate change will only get worse. “Because the climate is changing rapidly, we need to work fast to help ecosystems adapt and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Olson says. Here’s one easy way to do your part: To avoid contributing to landfills—one of the biggest sources of global warming—Olson suggests using compostable foodservice ware when you order takeout or bring your lunch to work.