Is climate change the same thing as global warming?
No. “Global warming” refers to an increase in the average temperature near the Earth's surface. “Climate change” refers to the broader set of changes that go along with global warming, including changes in weather patterns, the oceans, ice and snow, and ecosystems. Most experts now use the term “climate change” because it gives a more complete picture of the changes that are happening around the world. Learn more about climate change.
Why is climate change happening?
The main reason the climate is changing is because people are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which is released whenever people burn fossil fuels to do everyday activities like driving cars, heating buildings, and making electricity. As greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they cause the Earth to trap extra heat, making the planet warmer. Learn more about the causes of climate change.
What is the greenhouse effect, and how does it affect the climate?
The greenhouse effect is a natural process that helps make the Earth warm enough for us to live. It works like this: The Earth gets energy from the sun, heats up, and then gives off energy in a different form, called infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap some of this energy before it escapes to outer space, warming the atmosphere. But people's activities are adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, so the greenhouse effect is becoming stronger and the Earth is getting warmer. Learn more about the greenhouse effect.
Does the “ozone hole” have anything to do with climate change?
Not really. The “ozone hole” refers to a decrease in the layer of ozone gas found high in the Earth's atmosphere, which helps to shield the planet from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. The ozone layer has become thinner because of chemicals that were once commonly used in products ranging from spray cans to foam furniture cushions. While a thinner ozone layer allows more ultraviolet rays to reach the Earth, increasing the risk of sunburns and skin cancer, it doesn't cause climate change. Learn more about the ozone layer.
Hasn't the Earth's climate changed before? What's different about climate change today?
Yes. The Earth's climate changed many times in the distant past as a result of natural causes, but today's climate change is different because people's activities are the main cause. This is also the first time modern society has had to deal with such large, widespread changes in climate. Rising sea level, stronger storms, droughts, and other effects of climate change will pose major challenges for people around the world. Learn more about the difference between past and present climate change.
Why is it a problem if the Earth's average temperature gets a little warmer?
Temperature plays an important role in how nature works, and even a small change in average temperature can have a noticeable impact on plants, animals, and other natural processes. For example, just a one- to two-degree increase in global temperature can lead to a much greater risk of wildfires. Some parts of the world are warming a lot more than average, which means the effects are much more dramatic. Learn more about the many ways in which the Earth is already changing.
How can the Earth be getting warmer if it's colder than usual where I live?
The average temperature around the world is rising, and 2001–2010 was the warmest decade on record. But that doesn't mean we won't still have occasional cold spells. To see why, it's helpful to understand the difference between weather and climate. “Weather” refers to day–to–day conditions, such as a rainstorm or today's temperature. In contrast, “climate” refers to the average weather conditions you would expect to find in a certain place, based on patterns over many years. Day–to–day weather will always have its ups and downs, and there will always be a chance of extreme cold events. But as the Earth's climate gets warmer over time, most places will experience more days with record high temperatures and fewer days with record low temperatures. Learn more about weather and climate.
What are the most visible signs of climate change?
You can't see the signs of climate change from one day to the next, but if you compare from year to year, the clues are everywhere! For example, as the Earth has become warmer, the average sea level around the world has risen by nearly 7 inches in the last 100 years, glaciers all over the world are shrinking, and many bird species are shifting northward. Some of the most obvious changes are happening in the Arctic, where the amount of ice in the ocean has decreased dramatically. Learn more about the signs of climate change.
Can climate change harm plants and animals?
Yes. Any change in the climate of an area can affect the plants and animals that live there. Some animals might adapt or move elsewhere, but others could have trouble surviving. For example, if the ice in the Arctic Ocean disappears, the animals that depend on this ice won't have anywhere else to go. Climate change also alters plants' and animals' life cycles. For example, some flowers are blooming earlier in the spring, while some animals are migrating at different times. Learn more about how climate change will affect plants and animals.
What can we do to stop climate change?
There are lots of things you, your friends, and your family can do each day to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A major way that greenhouse gases get into the atmosphere is when people burn coal, oil, and natural gas for energy. Here are some simple steps you can take to use less energy:
Turn off the lights when you leave a room.
Turn off your computer and other electronic devices when you're not using them.
Drive less. Instead, walk, ride your bike, or use public transportation if you can.
Use less water.
Create less waste.
Recycle used paper, cans, bottles, and other materials.