Climate change is an open-ended, plural notion that refers to the consequences of complex feedback loops linking 1) anthropogenic global warming, 2) other human-driven processes—including biodiversity loss, pollution, desertification, deforestation, species extinction, soil erosion, ocean acidification, the expansion of human populations, resource depletion, etc.—and 3) all living systems of the planet: consequences that can be observed in and as a long-term change in Earth’s weather patterns.
While in many contexts climate change can be used interchangeably with global warming, climate change is a wider notion, “including global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas amounts will affect”. The open-endedness has advantages and disadvantages, depending on your needs.
The key advantage is that climate change is a “fuzzy set” term—one that encompasses a multiplicity of components with degrees of membership: some of them more central, others more removed or indirect, yet part of the larger whole nevertheless. Proponents of using the term claim that “climate change” allows you to signal that while global warming is indeed “the mother of all issues” (An Inconvenient Truth), the cluster of processes and relations described under the umbrella of “climate change” are not limited to weather. They have equally serious social, political, and economic consequences for human societies, all non-human life, and the planet as a whole. This may be one reason why the United Nations body IPCC is called the panel on Climate Change (rather than on global warming, environmental crisis, or the Anthropocene). For some, the term climate change is still too narrow. The Club of Rome, for example, prefers to use what they see as a wider and more accurate term of “Climate-Planetary Emergency.”
The disadvantage of climate change as a fuzzy term is that it can be manipulated by deniers and those who point out that climate has always been changing. Since NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress, many scientists have preferred to use the more quantifiable term global warming. Global warming refers to a measurable rise in the global mean surface temperature of the earth caused by anthropogenic activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels. Because it’s quantifiable, “global warming” is often more useful than “climate change”—especially for the purposes of scientific reports, international agreements, and policy documents. Another objection against the term “climate change” has been that subsuming all processes under climate change is counterproductive, as many of those need to be addressed as distinct issues. This has especially been the case with biodiversity loss.
As of 2021, there is a widespread agreement that the evil twins of climate change and biodiversity loss are closely related, cannot be tackled independently, and must be solved together or not at all. ©2021 ClimateLit (Marek Oziewicz)
Related terms: global warming, Anthropocene, IPCC, climate literacy, climate change denial, emissions, fossil fuels
by Zoë Tucker
“And no one told them to stop because everyone was scared of them”