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global warming or climate change? Does it matter? More importantly, how are we going in dealing with it?

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 …climate change (now interchangeably, albeit inaccurately, called global warming)….

Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, pp 168-9


I was a bit miffed by this slight put-down, because for some time I’ve been insisting (as if anybody noticed) on using the term ‘global warming’ in the face of what I’ve considered a move towards the ‘climate change’ term. In other words my subjective impression has been that ‘global warming’ is being replaced by ‘climate change’, a less urgent term to my way of thinking. I suspect this impression has come from my listening to expert podcasts and videos from New Scientist and other scientific sources, and it seems to me that some agreed-upon descriptor has come down from the Scientists on High, which of course stirs my anti-authoritarian blood.

My semi-informed view is that, yes, the climate is changing due to ‘greenhouse’ gases, by-products of our industries, particularly carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour, accumulating in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect which is essentially a warming effect. And heat is energy, creating volatility and unpredictability. And the water vapour in particular, evaporating from the oceans, is broadening the tropical belt, causing storms, floods, lightning and fire. Of course there are countervailing factors – ice melt from the poles cools the oceans, adding to the volatility.

So I’ll go online to explore this rather minuscule issue, in my minuscule way. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has this to say:

Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, global warming is just one aspect of climate change. “Global warming” refers to the rise in global temperatures due mainly to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Climate change” refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time – including precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns.

That tells me it’s all much of a muchness, and the climate change we’re concerned about today is a product of greenhouse gas concentrations and the warming this is creating. So I’ll continue to use the global warming term, which isn’t at all inaccurate, because for me at least, it’s clear that the climate changes we’re experiencing stem from this warming, which is why experts like to connect our planetary future to 1.5 degrees, or 2, or 3 degrees, etc. Having said that, I’m more than impressed by Vaclav Smil’s analytical approach to the Big Issues of our modern world, and by his work ethic, which of course puts me to shame (he has written 36 books on energy, food, technology and other key aspects of human civilisation). He can be pedantic, but in a useful way, for example in pointing out that the ‘greenhouse effect’ isn’t really about how greenhouses work:

Labelling this natural phenomenon as the ‘greenhouse effect’ is a misleading analogy, because the heat inside a greenhouse is there not only because the glass enclosure prevents the escape of some infrared radiation but also because it cuts off air circulation. In contrast, the natural ‘greenhouse effect’ is caused solely by the interception of a small share of outgoing infrared radiation by trace gases [water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide].

V Smil, How the world really works, p178

Yeah, we kind of knew that, Vaclav, but thanks for the detail. What’s more interesting in his book is the detail of the challenges we face, and how we’re actually facing them. And one of the critiques he makes, what with all these COP meet-ups and IPCC projections, is the lack of detail and realism in dealing with these enormously complex issues faced by diverse states at varying levels of development, with competing needs, resources, issues and challenges. Our environmental footprint is embiggening, though its embiggening rate is reducing, in much the same way as our global population is, and our continued reliance on the Big Four, cement, steel, plastics and ammonia, to maintain our civilisations, means that fossil fuel emissions and global temperatures will continue to rise in coming decades. Moreover, as Smil points out, predictions about the growth in EV sales haven’t panned out in the last decade or so, and many other prognostications, especially about the future, have fallen flat, such as global supersonic flight, the population bomb, peak oil (I once read a book on that one), nuclear energy (for air travel and for uncovering natural gas fields, and some even nuttier schemes, such as creating ‘instant harbours’!), synthetic life forms (good-looking, hopefully), the 2000 tech-meltdown, and so on.

We seem often to underestimate our genius for surviving – and to overestimate our tendency to fuck things up. Which isn’t to say that we always get things right, or foresee the results of our manipulations of the so-called natural world. Smil is undoubtedly a good skeptic in this area, although I do find him something of an aloof overseer, unlike, for example, Gaia Vince, an intrepid traveller, moving from coal-front to coal-front, befriending and interviewing movers and shakers in the field, from the Sahel to the Columbian mines and the disappearing Himalayan glaciers. Both individual types help us to view the world richly, from individual and global perspectives (and it’s interesting, and unsurprising, that the overseer is male, and the engager is female).

Another problem preventing us from facing the real issues is the petty but mass-murderous ambition of the Putins and Xi Jinpings of the world and their horrific concepts of nationalism and power. The WEIRD world needs to reach out to the suffering peoples of these countries – especially the Chinese, a smart, industrious, ambitious and forward-thinking people who would thrive under a democratic regime (the Russians, by contrast, seem more cowed by their centuries of horror). This raises the question of how we deal with a country like China. My approach would be to maintain relations as much as possible while promoting better, more inclusive forms of government. Raise again and again the lack of women in government. Ask why this is so. What is the justification for an all-male politburo? How can they (the tiny governing minority) pretend that women in power is ‘Western’ and anti-Chinese? Isn’t the generally more collaborative approach of women a boon at a time when we face global crises needing global, collaborative solutions? Doesn’t the drumbeat of war, in these times, sound jarring and out of tune?

A greater internationalism is upon us, and more of it will be forced upon us as we face a global warming issue that will worsen in coming decades, without any doubt. Nationalism tends to get in the way of responses to international crises, as happened with the recent global pandemic. We tend to live in the moment, an eternal present, and we don’t realise, most of us, that if we were born a couple of centuries ago, we could travel throughout much of the world without crossing a border, without having to produce a passport or a visa, and without having to prove our ‘legality’. And we certainly can’t predict what systems will pertain in a couple of centuries from now, but they’re surely more likely to promote communication, co-ordination and exchange rather than isolation. I can only thank the writers and communicators that I’m able to plug into for helping me to focus on the future – my own and beyond – with as much realism and positivity as can reasonably be mustered.


How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future, by Vaclav Smil, 2022


Adventures in the Anthropocene; Transcendence; Nomad Century, by Gaia Vince, 2018 – 2021

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2023 at 12:41 pm