Global Warming Basics: It's Called Climate Change for a Reason

Contrary to the shrill cries of those who don't really want to have a debate, it's called climate change for a reason.The globe does not always warm.  Sometimes it cools. Both the terms "climate change" and "global warming" have been in use for decades.

I have been one who found it humorous that scientists and the media seemed recently to be using the term "climate change" more often than "global warming".  It turns out that it's not a big deal.

Has the phrase "climate change" come into vogue in place of "global warming" because the globe is no longer warming? Earth may be in a current warming pattern, or it may not be. But the climate has warmed and cooled over the millennia of its existence, and various episodes of warming and cooling have been caused by such things as volcanic eruptions, changes in the amount of the sun's activity, and variations in earth's orbit.

To me, therefore, the term "climate change" is preferable to "global warming".

There hasn't really been a radical change in use of terminology. Ask yourself this: is there an "Intergovernmental Panel on Global Warming"?  No, because it has always been called the "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change".

The term "climate change" seems to have been first used in 1935.  Scientist Gilbert Plass began regularly using the term "climatic change" in 1956. It actually wasn't until 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before congress, that the term "Global Warming" became commonly used, although scientists have studied global warming for over a century.

But what about the fear of global cooling in the 1970's?  What about this article in Time magazine that prognosticated a future ice age?
However widely the weather varies from place to place and time to time, when meteorologists take an average of temperatures around the globe they find that the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades.

Telltale signs are everywhere —from the unexpected persistence and thickness of pack ice in the waters around Iceland to the southward migration of a warmth-loving creature like the armadillo from the Midwest.
History shows that each ice age usually followed a period of global warming.  One theory is that warming could cause the release of large amounts of glacial ice which could create huge icebergs which cause the earth's surface to be whiter and thus more reflective of heat.

The same Time magazine article stated that
Some scientists...think that the cooling trend may be only temporary. But all agree that vastly more information is needed about the major influences on the earth's climate.
So, to be sure, some scientists were concerned about the possibility of global cooling. Meanwhile, many other scientists were testing their concerned hypotheses about global warming.  And instead of concerns about  cooling, the concern of global warming has been around much longer.

In the early 1900's Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius began wondering of industrialization might increase at such a rate as to result in man being a significant cause of warming due to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  At the time, though, he opined that some warming would be a good thing for his frosty homeland. 
In 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar, an engineer but something of a climate hobbyist, in tabulating historical weather reports, noticed that average temperatures were increasing. He also tabulated measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere and notice that it was increasing as well. Ironically, it was Callendar, a non-scientist, who brought global warming into the limelight by positing that the two increases were related. This article says that
We owe much to Callendar's courage. His claims rescued the idea of global warming from obscurity and thrust it into the marketplace of scientific ideas. Not everyone dismissed his claims. Their very uncertainty attracted scientific curiosity. 
The term climate change is often used interchangeably with the term global warming, but according to the National Academy of Sciences, "the phrase 'climate change' is growing in preferred use to 'global warming' because it helps convey that there are [other] changes in addition to rising temperatures."
Climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). Climate change may result from:
  • natural factors, such as changes in the sun's intensity or slow changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun;
  • natural processes within the climate system (e.g. changes in ocean circulation);
  • human activities that change the atmosphere's composition (e.g. through burning fossil fuels) and the land surface (e.g. deforestation, reforestation, urbanization, desertification, etc.)
The terms climate change and global warming have both been around for a long time.  The change in frequency in use of the terms is no harbinger of a great global conspiracy or cover-up. To suggest as much is to attempt to squelch open debate about an important issue.

Read the "Global Warming Basics" series:


  1. It really doesn't matter what we call it. The bottom line is we need to drive less, use more mass transit, live in smaller homes (600 sq. ft) in high rises, limit families to two children, live in walkable communities, restrict the amount of times per year people are allowed to fly, eat locally grown food, and much, much more. Only a robust State in equal partnership with other nations can make the necessary transformations in our society. We also need to think more communally and less individually.

  2. Anon: Interesting insight. I tend to agree. Robert Frank of Cornell University once said essentially that if we all had smaller homes, we'd all be just as happy. The problem is, because other people have bigger homes, we tend to feel embarrassed by our smaller ones, and we think we have to have what they have.

    Walkable communities seemed the norm in Austria 25 years ago when I served an LDS mission there. It's ironic that, with our zoning laws, America has largely made walkable communities impossible.

  3. This is a very, very tired right-wing talking point. Global warming is the cause. Climate change is the term we use for the effects of global warming.

  4. I support the use of mass transit by others.

  5. I think that we should have smaller houses and have cars that run on something that won't pollute the air yes, but telling someone that they can only do this or that is not a good thing either. We can do things without polluting the envorment, the problem is that too many hands are in the pockets of big oil companies and too many people make money with the status quo as it is and change would cost them their way of life. We kind of need a melt down of our old ways to get people to look for a new and better way of doing things. Yes many of us would change without the meltdown, but far too many of us won't. Hence the "Global Warming" scare. Which I think is nothing more than the earth's natural cycle. I don't think all the crap we put out is good for anyone though so getting people to stop I think would be a good thing. How is the question.


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