Six lessons to boost your climate vocabulary

climate-change-shutterstock-221252449-copyright-patpitchaya-small-not-for-distributionRight now, political-types from virtually every country in the world are gathering in Peru to talk about climate change. They're working toward a major international agreement about how every nation will pitch in to address global climate change. It's kind of a big deal. If you're not quite ready to sit at the international table, maybe you just need a little help understanding the jargon. Here are six vocabulary lessons to get you ready for the big negotiations.

Fossil fuels vs. renewable energy

Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are formed from from fossilized plants and animals found buried deep under the earth. That is, prehistoric plants and animals that lived, died and decomposed hundreds of millions of years ago. That's a long timeline if you have to make more. Compare this to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, where every day the wind blows or the sun shines is a new chance to capture their energy.
Extra Credit: Read this article about the dollars and cents behind renewable vs. fossil fuel energy in the US.

Carbon emissions and greenhouse gases

Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases. There are many greenhouse gases, but carbon dioxide – which is released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels – is the most abundant.
Extra Credit: Watch this 52-second video that explains how greenhouse gases cause global warming.

Climate change or global warming?

Technically, both terms refer to the same phenomenon – the impact on the entire world as a result of changes to our atmosphere. But "global warming" refers only to the Earth's rising temperature, while "climate change" adds in effects on precipitation patterns, sea level rise and a whole host of other concerns.
Extra Credit: Here's a quick history lesson on the global warming vs. climate change debate.

Mitigate, mitigate, miti-what?

Mitigate. It means "to make less severe." Scientists often talk about mitigating climate change, rather than stopping it. With the amount of greenhouse gases that have already accumulated in the atmosphere, the climate is not going to stop changing, but humans can take action to slow down climate change. That's what they're talking about in Peru right now.
Extra Credit: Read this helpful Q&A on how human actions can mitigate climate change.


From the Greek Anthropos, which means "human beings," and the suffix -genic, which means "caused by." Scientists often talk about climate change being anthropogenic – caused by humans – because while greenhouse gas concentrations have gone up and down throughout history, they started going up at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (about 1760), and they haven't come down since.
Extra Credit: Check out this mind-blowing graph (or this more scholarly paper) to see just how far carbon emissions have increased compared to thousands of years of history.

Bonus: Acronyms (fun, right?)

The climate talks in Peru are being hosted by the UNFCCC (say "U-N-F triple-C"). That's the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is a political body working to develop an international climate policy. Their discussions will be informed, in part, by reports developed by the IPCC. That's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a scientific body that regularly assesses and consolidates a huge body of scientific knowledge into reports that focus our understanding of climate change.
Extra Credit: Here's a handy glossary of acronyms, for the enthusiastic climate scholar.
Ready to hit the United Nations' convention floor? Go get 'em, champ! Author Michelle Schwartz is manager of marketing and communications for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.