Just what is global warming anyway?


Given the amount of news and media coverage about global warming you may have suspected that asking ‘what is global warming?’ was a bit of a stupid question. In the first instance it’s worth remembering that there are no stupid questions only stupid answers. But even ignoring that, ‘what is global warming?’ isn’t a stupid question. In fact it’s a very good one. Why?

Because listening to someone give an answer to the question ‘what is global warming?’ can tell you something interesting about that person. And perhaps people in general.

Now I don’t mean determining whether that person is a ‘denier‘ or an ‘alarmist’ (or some other label). Rather it will let you know what that person thinks the role of humans are within the Earth’s climate. Do I really mean ‘role’? In a sense I do because all life on Earth has some effect on the Earth’s climate. Granted much of these effects will be incredibly tiny and safely ignored, but some will be significant and matter a great deal. All organisms play different roles in this respect. These roles are largely by-products of whatever organisms have to do in order to make a living. To eat, grow, reproduce. But they add up and are important for the functioning of the Earth’s climate.

So, I suggest a little experiment of sorts. Ask some people ‘what is global warming?’ and see what sort of answers you get back. I predict that all of your answers will talk about the effects of humans (whether real or imaginary). But that will be the sum total of biological effects on the Earth’s climate.

When we talk about global warming this should be our starting point – that life has and continues to effect climate and that the issue at hand right now is to what extent are our actions affecting the climate in ways that we and future generations will judge to be ‘bad’. Then we can begin to try to evalutate just what ‘bad’ means in this context. This is where I think the debate can be productively progressed, with questions such as: what sort of a world would we like to live in and how far are we from the actual world we are in part constructing?


In order to do that, we will need some understanding of the science of climate change. But without a broader historical or social context it can be easy to loose sight of the bigger picture. Humans started affecting the Earth’s climate the moment they came down from the trees, started farming and controlling fire. The problems stem from the fact that the strength of these effects are unprecedented in all of human history. See exponential energy.

I can’t think of a better introduction to the science of global warming than this page at the RealClimate website. In a future post I will give my take on this subject.

2 thoughts on “Just what is global warming anyway?

  1. “..to what extent are our actions affecting the climate in ways that we and future generations will judge to be ‘bad’. ”

    That’s easy. Just remember this simple rule of thumb: If the climate changes in ways we consider to be bad, then its caused by human activity. If the climate changes in ways we consider to be good, then it is caused by natural activity.

    So good climate change = nature.
    If bad climate change = humans.

    However almost all climate changes can be interprested to be bad, so they are almost all believed to be caused by human activity. Once in awhile they are considered good so they are believed to be natural. That’s rare fortunately.

    Just helping you out.


    • Its been about 20,000 years since the last ice age, during which places such as northern Europe were under kilometers of ice. Even more extreme events ‘snowball Earths’ froze pretty much the entire surface of the planet. These were natural changes to the Earth’s climate. I’m not sure anyone would think they are very attractive conditions in which to live!

      You make a very good point in that any climate change could be considered bad. It appears that the Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable for that past 10,000 years or so. A period called the Holocene. It’s hard to imagine how the tremendous increases in population, energy and land use could have occurred under very variable conditions. The flip side to this is that our civilisation may be very sensitive to even relatively minor changes in the Earth’s climate. The Earth’s climate will change, that much is certain. The really interesting question is to what extent are we driving or accelerating this change.

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