What Is Climate Change?

Contributor: Jay Gregorio. Lesson ID: 13379

Climate change is a hot issue used to explain everything from natural disasters to unusual animal behaviors. But what is it? How does it work? Can it be stopped? Find those answers and more here.


Earth Science, Space Science and Astronomy

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Modern-day life is very convenient for a lot of people. During the cold months, simply pressing a button adjusts the temperature inside their homes.


However we heat our homes, our goal is always to increase the temperature inside the house and trap it there. We insulate the walls and windows to save as much heat as possible. Otherwise, it would simply escape and be a complete waste of energy!

  • How could this exact scenario happen on a larger scale?
  • What does it have to do with global warning?
  • Why do scientists believe that leads to climate change?

Keep reading to explore the evidence of climate change and how human activities contributed to it.

Take a look outside right now.

  • Is it sunny today or cloudy?
  • Is it raining or snowing?
  • Do you think it is the same across your country? What about the world?

Weather Versus Climate

What you are observing now is the weather: conditions of the environment at a specific place.

Weather events like rain, snow, and thunderstorms are short-lived. They could last for a few days or even just a few hours. Weather patterns differ from one place to another.

Some people use weather and climate interchangeably, but these terms differ. The climate is not two days of rain nor a week of cloudy days.

The environmental condition described by climate covers a huge planet region and lasts for a longer period. The length of time considered is years, usually 30 years or more. That's a long time, indeed!

Therefore, if you live in the southern part of a state like Florida, where the climate is generally warm, you will also experience changes in weather patterns, such as cloudy skies, rain, and thunderstorms.

Check out What is the difference between weather and climate? for a quick rundown.

Climate Change and Its Causes

dying tree

  • What is climate change?

Now that you know how climate differs from weather, look at the term climate change.

Every location on the earth has average weather patterns typical for long periods. Climate change describes significant changes in these weather patterns that last several decades or even more.

These changes include but are not limited to regions becoming drier, receiving more rain than usual, or getting colder.

  • How do we know these changes are happening if observing them takes a long time?

Sophisticated data-gathering systems from satellites and meteorological stations can use automation to make sense of these patterns in real-time.

There is also a lot of evidence that can be found on the earth's surface that reveals a location's climate over time. These include tree rings, sediment in lakes, the shape of our landscapes, the depth of the ocean, and many more.

Watch the following video to explore more.

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  • What causes climate change?

The sun's rays travel through the earth's atmosphere to reach the planet's surface and warm it up. Naturally, this heat is reflected off the surface and back into space, which cools the earth down.

However, some of the heat cannot escape back into space because it becomes trapped. This trapped heat increases the overall temperature across the entire planet, leading to a change in climate across the planet over time.

To better understand the factors scientists suggest cause climate change, watch the video below.

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Human Impact

Many of the gases released into the atmosphere come from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas to generate electricity and heat.

Emissions from transportation have contributed to the number of harmful gases in the atmosphere as well.

Deforestation by logging, clear-cutting, and fire releases carbon, a component of carbon dioxide that keeps heat from escaping the earth's surface.

Other human activities, such as the use of pesticides, construction, and conversion of agricultural lands to favor urban cities, increase the trapped heat as well.


Natural Causes

Not all sources of carbon and harmful gases are human-generated. Volcanic eruptions, for example, release tons of carbon that mix in the air and stay afloat for a longer period.

The intensity of the sun's heat energy reaching the earth's surface could also be a factor.

Although natural causes certainly contribute to climate change, they do so on a smaller scale and much slower rate.


Think back to your warm and toasty home with insulated walls and windows that trap the heat you generate and keep it from escaping.

The thick layers of harmful gases in the earth's atmosphere act like wall insulators and trap the heat around the earth's surface. If it stays too long, it affects the usual weather patterns in most regions.

The Effects of Climate Change

Climate change discussions all over the world are focused on how to minimize human contribution.

The effects of climate change are projected to impact the quality of water significantly we drink, the places we live, and the air we breathe. Some of the most notable events attributed to climate change include the following.

Rising Ocean Levels

Melting ice and rising sea levels have been observed over the last few decades.

Projections indicate that the melting of ice sheets in the Arctic is fast enough to raise the water level by four to six feet in a few years.

Many islands in the middle of the ocean already see its effect on their landscape.

Rising Ocean Temperatures

The extra heat is absorbed by the large bodies of water on the earth's surface, creating warmer and more acidic oceans.

When the temperature rises, and the water has more dissolved chemicals, a diversity of aquatic plants and animals face a major threat to their survival.

Extreme Weather Events

Extreme weather conditions are prevalent in some areas. The rising temperature of the earth's surface affects air circulation and pressure, which results in more violent winds, hurricanes, and thunderstorms.

The devastating effects of these natural disasters have a huge impact on vulnerable communities.

Any climate change is a global issue with huge ramifications for everyone.

Some people do not believe that human impact is the driving force behind changes to our planet's climate. However, all the information available indicates that our climate is changing too quickly.

Scientists believe it is important to rethink our practices to ensure we all have clean water, air, and a decent planet on which to live!

Move on to the Got It? section whenever you're ready!

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