Two Emperor Penguins
The ice is melting, seas are rising and species like the Emperor Penguin are under threat. Photo: Lin Padgham/CC BY-SA

Climate Change for Beginners

Welcome to our beginners guide to climate change and global warming, and all the unhealthy pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels. We make the science easy to understand, although there are no easy answers when it comes to solving our climate crisis.

Question: What’s the Difference Between Climate Change and Global Warming?

Technically speaking, the term “climate change” refers to any significant change in the average rainfall, winds or temperature of the Earth – irrespective of the cause – which lasts for 30 years or longer.

Examples of past climate change include the five major ice ages of prehistory, as well as the terrible event that occurred 66 million years ago, when an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico resulting in a catastrophic loss of sunlight and a rapid cooling of Earth, which wiped out the dinosaurs.

Today, the term climate change is commonly used to describe the recent surge in world temperature (1975-present) – known as “global warming” – caused by man-made emissions of heat-trapping ‘greenhouse gases’, from the burning of coal, oil and gas.

What is Climate Change All About?

When the sun warms the surface of the Earth, the Earth re-radiates that heat back into the atmosphere. It does so, to avoid getting too hot. However, some of the escaping heat is ‘trapped’ for a time in the lower atmosphere by certain types of gas, known as greenhouse gases (GHGs).

For thousands, if not millions of years, the heat trapped by these gases has kept Earth at a nice cosy 15°C (59°F), instead of the chilly minus 18°C (0 °F) it would otherwise be. But ever since the Industrial Revolution around 1800, humans have started burning larger and larger quantities of coal, oil and natural gas for heat and power.

Unfortunately, when these so-called fossil fuels are burned, they release greenhouse gas. So, since 1800, or thereabouts, mankind has emitted billions of tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere which has trapped a considerable amount of heat trying to escape into space.

This trapped heat has unbalanced the climate system and has caused Earth’s temperature to rise by a whopping 1°C. This increase in temperature is what climate change and global warming is all about.

How Can We Stop the Earth Getting Hotter?

Stop burning fossil fuels, that’s how.

We need to switch to renewable energy sources, such as solar power, wind, bioenergy or hydropower.

It’ll take time because we don’t have enough renewable energy capacity in place yet, to cope with a complete switch.

Even so, according to the IPCC, the United Nations’ expert panel on climate science, a 25-45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed by 2030, leveling off at “net-zero” emissions by 2050, in order to limit global warming to a relatively ‘safe’ 2°C.

Earth's Average Temperature Chart Since 1880.
Graph showing the rise in global surface temperatures since 1880. The rate of increase has increased markedly since the mid-1970s. Source: NASA

FAQs on Climate Change for Beginners

An easy way to understand the basics of the subject, is to browse our questions and answers pages. You’ll find answers to over 100 questions on all aspects of our climate crisis. Please see: FAQs on Global Warming and FAQs on Climate Change. They give a straightforward explanation of climate change – ideal for beginners.

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Carbon Footprint Calculator

Our carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions for which we are responsible. It is usually expressed in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). It reflects all the carbon emissions needed to provide the products and services that we consume as individuals. It’s a sort of snapshot of our personal impact on the climate system. To see what your impact is, try out our free carbon footprint calculator.

For advice about lowering your personal emissions, see: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

For a slightly more detailed guide to climate change for beginners, with a little more on how we can stop it, see our article: Climate Change Essay in 1,000 words. It’s an easy-to-understand explanation of the problem, its causes and practical solutions. 1

As well as articles on global warming for beginners, we also produce a range of materials on climate change for students and other groups.


  1. See also: “BBC Science.” []