What is the Difference Between Global Warming & the Greenhouse Effect?

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What is the Difference Between Global Warming & the Greenhouse Effect?
The melting of the polar ice caps is part of global climate change. (NA/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The difference between the greenhouse effect and global climate change, sometimes called global warming, is the same as the difference between the heating element in your oven and burnt food. The heating element causes the oven to warm up, while burnt food is the result of an overheated oven.

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The Greenhouse Effect

Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and water vapour in the Earth's upper atmosphere allows sunlight to enter the atmosphere but prevents heat from leaving. The glass in a greenhouse has the same effect. The glass lets in light but traps in heat. Just like a greenhouse keeps plants warm and alive in the winter, the atmosphere keeps all living organisms on the planet alive as well. Without the atmosphere, more sunlight would reach the Earth but much more heat would escape into outer space. Without the greenhouse effect, the planet would be 15.6 degrees Celsius colder, according to the EPA.


Whether a surface absorbs the solar energy reaching it and turns it into heat or reflects it back into space is measured by a property called albedo. The surfaces with the highest albedo are ice sheets, fresh snow and clouds. The surfaces with the lowest albedo are asphalt, conifer and deciduous forests, dirt and grass. Once light rays penetrate the atmosphere and the Earth's surface absorbs them, the surface converts the energy into infrared radiation. The infrared radiation is a different wavelength than the light from the sun and it can't as easily pass through the greenhouse gases that encircle the planet.

Global Dimming

Nothing is simple. Dark and light coloured particles in the atmosphere from pollution have different impacts on the greenhouse effect. Sulphates, which are the main contributors to acid rain, are light reflecting. Therefore, sulphates contribute to global cooling. Once the sulphates are cleaned up from the atmosphere, the rate of global climate change increases.

Global Climate Change versus Global Warming

Global dimming is one of the reasons why global climate change is a more accurate term of what's happening to the Earth's long-term weather patterns than global warming. Global Warming, while accurate when looking at the surface temperature of the planet as a whole, doesn't describe what's going to happen in different regions. Aside from the average surface temperature increasing, the greenhouse effect will alter rain and snowfall patterns. As global climate change progresses, the circulation patterns of the ocean will also change, which can lead to regional cooling. Areas such as Great Britain, which currently benefits from northerly ocean currents, may cool, according to NASA.

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