The direct radiative effect (DRE) of aerosols, which is the instantaneous radiative impact of all atmospheric particles on the Earth's energy balance, is sometimes confused with the direct radiative forcing (DRF), which is the change in DRE from pre-industrial to present-day (not including climate feedbacks). In this study we couple a global chemical transport model (GEOS-Chem) with a radiative transfer model (RRTMG) to contrast these concepts. We estimate a global mean all-sky aerosol DRF of −0.36 Wm−2 and a DRE of −1.83 Wm−2 for 2010. Therefore, natural sources of aerosol (here including fire) affect the global energy balance over four times more than do present-day anthropogenic aerosols. If global anthropogenic emissions of aerosols and their precursors continue to decline as projected in recent scenarios due to effective pollution emission controls, the DRF will shrink (−0.22 Wm−2 for 2100). Secondary metrics, like DRE, that quantify temporal changes in both natural and anthropogenic aerosol burdens are therefore needed to quantify the total effect of aerosols on climate.