Climate Change! Global Warming! The Greenhouse Effect! Which Is It?

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A famous quote from George Bush Senior as he was campaigning for president in 1988 was that “those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect.”

A check of Google trends shows that today the term “greenhouse effect” is quite out of style. Much more popular is “climate change.” The phrase “global warming” isn’t much more current than the greenhouse effect.

All three of these phrases describe the phenomenon of how energy from the sun, in the form of visible light, warms our planet; and how our atmosphere keeps some of that warmth from escaping back into space; and finally how gases that humans have been adding to the atmosphere make it retain more of that heat than it used to do.

All three of the phrases have been kicking around among scientists for more than 100 years. Historian Spenser Weart says there was a marked increase in the frequency of both the terms “climate change” and “global warming” starting around 1986 as public concern began to rise.

President Bush’s use of “greenhouse effect” shows that supremacy among the three terms hadn’t yet completely asserted itself. However “climate change” already was showing a lead as it was the term incorporated in the name of the ultimate authority on the subject, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, also established the same year as Bush’s 1988 quote.

An advisor to the Republican Party named Frank Luntz is often credited with popularizing “climate change” and discouraging “global warming” through a “secret” 2002 memo to the GOP. He said “global warming” sounded catastrophic while “climate change” was less scary because it sounded more controllable and less emotional. At the time he thought it was a good idea to convince the public that the science wasn’t settled. He’s since abandoned that line of thinking and advised on communications strategies to encourage climate action.

Although Luntz’s memo dates to 2002 Professor Weart’s research shows that “climate change” had already begun to overtake “greenhouse effect” and “global warming” by the mid-1990s.

So if you want to sound hip, modern, and up to date, say “climate change.”

Except the story doesn’t end there. “Climate change” is too calming say many people and we should instead be saying “climate crisis” or “climate emergency.”

Other’s warn that framing the issue in terms that induce fear will freeze people like deer in the headlights and that “climate consequences” instead give a sense of control that may allow more people to act.

In all these cases the word “climate” predominates so you can file “greenhouse effect” and “global warming” for historical reference.

Why Would Anyone Call it the Greenhouse Effect in the First Place?

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It’s much more common for people to experience a hot car interior when the car has been sitting in the sun than it is for them to be familiar with the workings of a greenhouse. Both hot car interiors and greenhouses work on the same principal. Sunshine pours in through the glass, warms up the surfaces it hits, but then that heat energy has nowhere to go, getting hotter and hotter in the case of a car, or forcing the gardener to open some windows before the plants die.

The earth’s greenhouse effect is kinda like that. It’s an analogy that showed up more than 100 years ago and almost immediately prompted debate as to whether it was a good analogy or not.

At a planetary scale the sunshine pours in through the transparent air of our atmosphere (analogous to the glass of the window). Just like the interior of a car that sunshine warms up the dark soil of farm fields and the black pavement of our streets, etc. But there the analogy begins to break down. In a car or greenhouse the solution to overheating is to open the windows. The over-warmed air moves out and fresh cooler air moves in. The cooling mechanism is mostly convection. At the scale of the whole world convection just moves heated air from one part of the planet to another. The main cooling mechanism for our earth is radiation. That energy that came to earth as visible light leaves the earth again as an invisible frequency or wavelength of light called infrared.

Infrared radiation is what you feel on your cheek when the oven burner is glowing red hot.

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The problem at a planetary scale is that some of the parts of our air — carbon dioxide and water vapor, for example — aren’t transparent to infrared radiation, as they are to sunshine in the visible range. So adding extra carbon dioxide, even a little bit, warms up the whole world, just a little bit.

What’s the Difference Between Global Warming and Climate Change?

Both “global warming” and “climate change” are accurate terms but with slightly different meanings. The whole world is indeed heating up, due in large part to our use of fossil fuels. “Global warming” refers to that wide scale warming; the average temperature all over the world.

But nobody lives “all over the world.” We each live and work and grow food in one place, or a handful of places, in this world. As the globe warms overall that doesn’t mean each individual place warms evenly along with it. Each of these places already had it’s own climate. The warming of the world overall means that those local climates are forced to change.

The Science and Consensus of Climate Change

The facts about climate change are well established and agreed to by all but the most stubborn non-conformists or those paid not to agree. The stand-out authority on what those facts are is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. For more info on the IPCC — in a digestible form — check out the book Because IPCC.

It’s a short, 33 illustrated pages, an upbeat, entertaining story that explains the history and science of the IPCC. The scene is 100 years in the future when the world has “solved” climate change and people are looking back, inspired by the dedication, rigor and achievements of the scientists of today.

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