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IPCC special report to scrutinise ‘feasibility’ of 1.5C climate goal

Posted on 27 September 2016 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief by Roz Pidcock

The head of the United Nation’s climate body has called for a thorough assessment of the feasibility of the international goal to limit warming to 1.5C.

Dr Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told delegates at a meeting in Geneva, which is designed to flesh out the contents of a special report on 1.5C, that they bore a “great responsibility” in making sure it meets the expectations of the international climate community.

To be policy-relevant, the report will need to spell out what’s to be gained by limiting warming to 1.5C, as well as the practical steps needed to get there within sustainability and poverty eradication goals.

More than ever, urged Lee, the report must be easily understandable for a non-scientific audience. The IPCC has come under fire in the past over what some have called its “increasingly unreadable” reports.


In between the main “assessment reports” every five or six years, the IPCC publishes shorter “special reports” on specific topics. Past ones have included extreme weatherand renewable energy.

The IPCC was “invited” by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to do a special report on 1.5C after the Paris Agreement codified a goal to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2C” and to “pursue efforts towards 1.5C”.

The aim for this week’s meeting in Geneva is, in theory, simple: to decide on a title for the report; come up with chapter headings; and write a few bullet points summarising what the report will cover.

On day two of three, Carbon Brief understands six “themes” have emerged as contenders. Judging by proceeding so far,  it seems likely that the feasibility of the 1.5C goal features highly on that list.

Referring to a questionnaire sent out to scientists, policymakers and other “interested parties” ahead of the scoping meeting to ask what they thought the 1.5C report should cover, Lee told the conference:

“One notion that runs through all this, is feasibility. How feasible is it to limit warming to 1.5C? How feasible is it to develop the technologies that will get us there?…We must analyse policy measures in terms of feasibility.”

The explicit mention of 1.5C in the Paris Agreement caught the scientific community somewhat off-guard, said Elena Manaenkova, incoming deputy secretary-general of theWorld Meteorological Organization.

Speaking in Geneva yesterday, she told delegates she felt “proud, but also somewhat concerned” about the outcome of the Paris talks. She said:

“I was there. I know the reason why it was done…[P]arties were keen to do even better, to go faster, to go even further…The word ‘feasibility’ is not in the Paris Agreement, is not in the decision. But that’s really what it is [about].”


Dr Andrew King, a researcher in climate extremes at the University of Melbourne, echoes the call for a rational discussion about the way ahead, now that the dust has settled after Paris. The question of what it would take to achieve the 1.5C goal has been largely sidestepped so far, he tells Carbon Brief:

“I think one unintended outcome of the Paris Agreement was that it made the public think limiting warming to 1.5C is possible with only marginally stronger policy from government on reducing emissions and this is simply not the case.”

Carbon Countdown: How many years of current emissions would use up the IPCC's carbon budgets for different levels of warming?

Carbon Countdown: How many years of current emissions would use up the IPCC’s carbon budgets for different levels of warming? Infographic by Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

The reality is that staying under the 1.5C threshold is now nigh-on impossible, says King. Meeting the 1.5C target now means overshooting and coming back down using negative emissions technologies that “suck” carbon dioxide out of the air. The report will need to be explicit about this, he says.

King is cautious about overstating the world’s ability to meet the 1.5C goal, given that no single technology yet exists approaching the scale that would be required. He tells Carbon Brief:

“We will need negative emissions on a large-scale and for a long period of time to bring global temperatures back down to 1.5C. This isn’t possible with current technologies.”

Earlier this year, Carbon Brief published a series of articles on negative emissions, including a close up on the most talked-about option – Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – and a survey of which technologies climate experts think hold the most potential.

‘A great responsibility’

Another point on which the special report must be very clear is the difference between impacts at 1.5C compared to 2C, noted Thelma Krug, chair of the scientific steering committee for the special report.

The first study to compare the consequences at both temperatures found that an extra 0.5C could see global sea levels rise 10cm more by 2100 and is also “likely to be decisive for the future of coral reefs”.

King tells Carbon Brief:

“We need to know more about the benefits of limiting warming to 1.5C. If scientists can demonstrate to policymakers that we would see significantly fewer and less intense extreme weather events by putting the brakes on our emissions then it might lead to the necessary action to protect society and the environment from the worst outcomes of climate change.”

Infographic: How do the impacts of 1.5C of warming compare to 2C of warming?

Infographic: How do the impacts of 1.5C of warming compare to 2C of warming? By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

The timing of the 1.5C special report is critical, said Lee yesterday. Due for delivery in September 2018, the IPCC’s aim is that the report should be “in time for” the UNFCCC’s “facilitative dialogue” scheduled that year.

This will be the first informal review under the global stocktake – a process that will enable countries to assess progress towards meeting the long-term goals set out under the Paris Agreement.

Expectations will be high, Lee told delegates yesterday:

“You can be sure that the report, when it is available in two years’ time…will attract enormous attention. So you have a great responsibility.”

Any scientist wishing their research to be included in the special report on 1.5C will need to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal by October 2017, and have it accepted for publication by April 2018, according to the IPCC’s timeline.

The scientific community is already mobilising behind this tight deadline. An international conference at Oxford University in September will see scientists, policymakers, businesses and civil society gather to discuss the challenges of meeting the 1.5C goal, which the organisers say “caught the world by surprise”.

Clearer communication

More than ever, the IPCC should strive to communicate the special report on 1.5C as clearly and accessibly as possible, Lee told the conference yesterday.

Given the primary audience will be non-specialists, the authors should think from the outset about how FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and graphics could be used to best effect, he said.

“The special report on 1.5C is not intended to replicate a comprehensive IPCC regular assessment reports. It should be focused on the matter at hand.”

The importance of the 1.5C topic calls for a different approach to previous IPCC reports, says King. He tells Carbon Brief:

“The report will fail to have much effect if the findings aren’t communicated well to policymakers and the public. This could be seen as a failing of the climate science community in the past. It has led to much weaker action on reducing climate change than is needed; this report needs to change this.”

A couple of recently published papers might give the authors some food for thought on this point.

The first study looks at how the process by which governments approve the IPCC’s Summaries for Policymakers (SPMs) affects their “readability”. Of the eight examples the study considers, all got longer during the government review stage. On average, they expanded by 30% or 1,500-2,000 words. The review process improved “readability” in half of cases, though all eight scored low for “storytelling”.

second paper explores the power of visuals for communicating climate science to non-specialists, and highlights where the IPCC may be falling short. Giving the examples below from the IPCC’s third and fourth assessment reports, the paper notes:

“A feeling of confusion among non-climate students is certainly not congruent with positive engagement yet this emotional state was frequently reported for SPM visuals.”

Images and infographics can be powerful, but only if the trade-off between scientific credibility and ease of understanding is carefully handled, the paper concludes.

Four examples of visuals used in the IPCC's third and fourth assessment reports. Source: McMahon et al., (2016)

Four examples of visuals used in the IPCC’s third and fourth assessment reports. Source: McMahon et al., (2016)

With all this mind, the scientists will leave the Geneva conference on Wednesday and prepare an outline for the 1.5C report based on their discussions over the previous three days.

They will submit the proposed plan to the IPCC panel at its next meeting in Bangkok in October. If the outline meets the panel’s expectations, it will accept it and things move forward. If it falls short, they can request changes be made. The discussions in Geneva are, therefore, unlikely to be the last word.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. Does the IPPC have a position on where we stand now in terms of degrees of warming?

    (This SkS post is pretty sobering if 1.5C is the goal.)

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  2. Well I have stated multiple times this statement is flat out unequivocally wrong.

    “We will need negative emissions on a large-scale and for a long period of time to bring global temperatures back down to 1.5C. This isn’t possible with current technologies.”

    Biological carbon capture and storage is possible with current technologies. Will we have the strength of character to use it? Doubtful. But it most certainly is possible.

    To be policy-relevant, the report will need to spell out what’s to be gained by limiting warming to 1.5C, as well as the practical steps needed to get there within sustainability and poverty eradication goals.

    That too! BCCS is also helpful in both those goals as well. In fact moving beyond a meager "sustainable" to actually regenerative, and moving beyond a meager "low cost" to actually profitable. And moving beyond a meager "profitable to overall economies" to specifically the most profit increases to the lowest earners living below the poverty line.

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  3. The charts in the article do indeed show some significant differences in impacts between limits set at 1.5 degrees versus 2 degrees. In fact the impacts are pretty sobering even at 1.5 degrees. However presumably you would say 1.2 degrees would be better still.

    The point is limiting emissions to 1.5 degrees is a monumental task. Even limiting emissions to 2 degrees is a huge challenge, so is there much point considering lower goals? You are in danger of generating a mindset in the public where they respond that the whole thing is practically impossible, so we might as well give up on any goal.

    There has to be a viable path forwards, even if it does require some significant sacrifices, but they have to be sacrifices that preserve a reasonable basic quality of life or people will say the solutions to global warming are worse than the problem. Their perception may or may not be correct, but our political systems are democratic, and this means we have to convince the public.

    2 degrees seems a more achievable target. Yesterday I read an article in a current affairs magazine, reporting on Antarctic ice loss. Apparently Rob DeConto has written a report in 'Nature' with some evidence that 2 degrees is fundamental in terms of Antarctic ice. The report basically suggests Antarctic ice would remain reasonably stable if temperatures are limited to 2 degrees, (I take that to mean a very slow rate of ice loss) but once you get above 2 degrees there is a fairly sudden acceleration and much more ice loss. This appears to suggest 2 degrees is the number we should worry most about.

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  4. Red Baron @2 

    Sequestration of carbon in soils does have some appeal to me, but you are up against two big challenges. Firstly there would be an upper limit on how much carbon can be stored this way.

    Secondly such a system requires a lot of changes in farming methods that have some short term costs in some cases. Farming lobbies are notoriously powerful, ask the EU or the United States. So how politically viable is it? 

    So even assuming some uptake of the idea, carbon capture looks like a partial answer to me.

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  5. @4 nigelj,

     Yes there is an upper limit to the amount of carbon stored this way. Fortunately that upper limit far exceeds all the Carbon in the atmosphere. So it is plenty large enough to lower CO2 and meet the IPCC panel's stated goals.

    Yes such a system requires changes in farming methods, and the agricultural infrastructure that supports farmers. Those do have some short term costs. Fortunately the short term profit increases largely offset those short term costs, and the long term profit potential to both the farmers and the larger economies, both national and international, far exceed any temporary short term costs, and that's even without trying to measure the economic costs associated with ecosystem services losses. Include those and the cost benefit analysis shows a positive outcome immediately.

    Yes there are extremely powerful lobbies resisting the change, and not just agricultural lobbies, but also financial lobbies because of the huge vested interest in the status quo at the commodity markets, banking, insurance, and international trade level. So yes there is a question of political viability.

    I believe I know of a way to break that deadlock. Unlike my previous statement about there being unequivocally the technological ability to do what is needed, this objection I am far more cautious about. I have made a rather detailed practical summary of how I believe that deadlock can be cracked. here But actually breaking the deadlock is another matter.

    I believe that plan would need to be brought before a high level think tank to flesh out and be peer reviewed before it would be acceptable to the IPCC. Since I posted it, I myself already found a few things I would word slightly differently in order to meet the IPCC request for communicating well to policymakers and the public. But you are more than welcome to add your ideas.

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  6. Having studied the last SPM, I conclude that the IPCC didn't use any technical writers to create it, or if they did, the writers were not very skilful.  (In case you're puzzled: BrE "skilful", AmE "skillful")

    As a retired technical writer, I know that a small team of skilled technical writers would've created an SPM that was easily understood by politicians of all kinds, including those with little knowledge of science.  Not only that, but such an SPM would have had a far greater impact.

    This is not to denigrate the efforts of those who did write the SPM.  It's just that very few scientists are good at writing for lay readers.  Nor should one expect anything different, for this is the province of the technical writer, not the scientist.  The job of the technical writer is to "translate" the science into language the lay reader can understand.

    (My technical writing, incidentally, entailed "translating" engineering-speak into technician-speak!)

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  7. Red Baron @5

    Thanks for your information. I have had a read of your more detailed summary on carbon capture in the soil, and the way to promote this, and what you say is quite compelling with a long list of research links.

    However I don’t have any real specialist soil knowledge. The only soil science I have ever done is stage 1 (introductory) physical geography at university, long time ago but interesting paper that had a component on soils.

    I would agree carbon capture is probably more acceptable to both conservatives and liberals than taxes or kicking the oil companies too directly.

    I agree oil subsidies are absurd, given oil companies are profitable and established without the need for any additional help. Ideally subsidies should be switched to more useful things like carbon capture.

    However this would still be a hard sell politically. It’s a case of favours to campaign supporters, something both democrats and conservatives are tied into. In other words it’s part of the American system where elections are funded by private sector donations. The democrats have tried to put a cap on this, or some limits, but it has been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional to limit donations, so its hard to see what the answer is. Of course some presidents are self funding like Trump, but that guy brings a whole lot of other problems. It's unlikely we would see a self funding president that’s universally admired, but hope springs eternal.

    Back to soil capture. All quite promising practically and could possibly be sold politically despite my reservations, so good luck to you. However the problem is also time related. It would take a long time to make such a proposal have a tangible effect. However I'm being a "contrarian" on the issue here! If such systems also have other benefits as you claim, then that alone makes it worthwhile.

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  8. Digby Scorgie @6: To the best of my knowledge, the authors of the IPCC's Summaries for Policymakers are a  combination of scientists and non-scientists from throughout the world. They do not all speak English so translations are required throughout the drafting process. The fact that the reports read as well as they do is a tribute to all involved. 

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  9. RedBaron: How do the research results described in the following article impact your position on the ability of biological carbon capture and storage to make a significant contribution to mitigating manmade climate change?

    New research explores how wetlands and agriculture could be causing a global rise in methane by Sarah Honeycombe, Geo Space, AGU Blogosphere, Sep 27, 2016

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  10. @9 John Hartz,

     Claimed in the link you provided:

    "It is possible the natural processes that remove methane from the atmosphere have slowed down, but it is more likely that there’s been an increase of methane emission instead, especially from the hot wet tropics, according to the authors."

    In my opinion both are happening. Agriculture as it is most widely practised now is both reducing the natural processes that remove methane, and in some cases increasing methane emissions. So the net component of increasing atmospheric methane that agriculture is responcible for is dramatically rising due to the effect agriculture has on both sides of the methane cycle.

    You asked how can BCCS make a significant contribution to mitigating this contribution to manmade climate change? Well starting with wetlands emissions, the primary agricultural component to that portion of the methane cycle is paddy rice production. So in the case of rice, a shift to SRI would be a significant improvement.

    • Reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from paddy soils

    o Methane (CH4) is reduced by between 22%
    and 64%, as soils are maintained under mostly
    aerobic conditions [10,11,3]
    o Nitrous oxide (N2O) is only slightly increased
    or sometimes reduced as use of N fertilizers is
    reduced; N20 increases do not offset CH4
    reductions, so GWP is reduced [9,10,11,12]
    oTotal global warming potential (GWP) from
    flooded rice paddies is reduced 20-30%
    [10,12,3], even up to 73% [11]

    The System of Rice Intensification (SRI)… … is climate-smart rice production

    SRI has over 700 published journal articles which can be found here: JOURNAL ARTICLES ABOUT THE SYSTEM OF RICE INTENSIFICATION (SRI)

    Please note that yields per hectare are increased at the same time as the impact to AGW is reduced. You will also find that many of the outliers mentioned in the above quote are also the same outliers in yields too. In other words, the farmers that reduce emissions the most are also the same farmers yielding the most. (and the farmers sequestering the most carbon in the soil) And the farmers producing the record yields have little to no impact on AGW any longer at all. It can not be emphasized enough how important this breakthrough is, as the methane signature from rice cultivation goes back thousands of years according to the Ruddiman Early Anthropocene Hypothesis .

    The next biggest agricultural component to methane increases is related to the way we currently practice animal husbandry. This component is primarily driven by reducing the natural processes that remove methane from the atmosphere. Since ruminants and other animals have been passing gas since the beginning of time, it is less an emissions problem but rather a symptom of soil degradation caused by the way we currently raise grains (largely to feed animals in confinement).

    In my opinion methane is an animal husbandry problem primarily because of CAFO's. It is not a problem in a properly managed grassland/savanna biome. After all those biomes supported many millions and millions of grazers who were extirpated. The methane levels before they were extirpated were actually lower than now! According to the following studies those biomes actually reduce atmospheric methane due to the action of Methanotrophic microorganisms that use methane as their only source of energy and carbon. Even more carbon being pumped into the soil! Nitrogen too, as they are also free living nitrogen fixers.

    Grasslands and their soils can be considered sinks for atmospheric CO2, CH4, and water vapor, and their
    Cenozoic evolution a contribution to long-term global climatic cooling. Cenozoic Expansion of Grasslands and Climatic Cooling

    The subsurface location of methanotrophs means that energy
    requirements for maintenance and growth are obtained from
    CH4 concentrations that are lower than atmospheric. Soil Microorganisms as Controllers of Atmospheric Trace Gases
    (H2, CO, CH4, OCS, N2O, and NO)

    Upland (i.e., well-drained, oxic) soils are a net sink for atmospheric methane; as methane diffuses from the atmosphere into these soils, methane consuming (i.e., methanotrophic) bacteria oxidize it. IMPACT OF METHANOTROPH ECOLOGY ON UPLAND METHANE

    Nevertheless, no CH4 was released when soil surface CH4 fluxes were measured simultaneously. The results thus demonstrate the high CH4 oxidation potential of the thin aerobic topsoil horizon in a non-aquatic ecosystem. Methane fluxes from differentially managed grassland study plots: the important role of CH4 oxidation in grassland with a high potential for CH4 production.

    Of all the CH4 sources and sinks, the biotic sink strength is the most responsive to variation in human activities. Environmental impacts on the diversity of methane-cycling microbes and their resultant function

    The CH4 uptake rate was only 20% of that in the woodland in an adjacent area that had been uncultivated for the same period but kept as rough grassland by the annual removal of trees and shrubs and, since 1960, grazed during the summer by sheep. It is suggested that the continuous input of urea through animal excreta was mainly responsible for this difference. Another undisturbed woodland area with an acidic soil reaction (pH 4.1) did not oxidize any CH4. Methane oxidation in soil as affected by land use, soil pH and N fertilization

    I pulled a few quotes out to make my case, but I highly recommend you read the sources in their entirety and even find further educational materials, since this is a highly complex subject.

    The main summary being, the current system used to raise animals in confinement has removed them from the farmland, where when managed properly their methane emissions are part of a larger agricultural system that oxidizes more methane than the animals emit. Since this biological oxidation of methane occurs below the soil surface where that carbon enters the soil food web, actually animals improve the BCCS systems even more than without them. This actually has been known for decades and is well vetted, but was never quantified for climate scientists. Sir Albert Howard, father of organic agriculture, noted this effect on soil biology (of removing farm animals from the land and replacing their impact with synthetic fertilizers) way back in the 1940s.

    “As the small trickle of results grows into an avalanche — as is now happening overseas — it will soon be realized that the animal is our farming partner and no practice and no knowledge which ignores this fact will contribute anything to human welfare or indeed will have any chance either of usefulness or of survival.” Sir Albert Howard

    In my honest opinion one reason for the recent spike in atmospheric methane is simply the fruition of Sir Albert Howard's dire prediction, since we continue to ignore this.

    The third part of the link you submitted talks about increased emissions from natural wetlands. I am less familiar with this portion of their claims, but I can hypothesize that it could potentially be related in part to agricultural runoff causing anaerobic conditions (dead zones), since most decomposition under anaerobic conditions does produce large quantities of methane. Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Streams and Rivers--Creating Vast "Dead Zones" Ironically the "King Corn" lobby is so huge, that even though the above article from Scientific America admits the primary cause cropland runoff of synthetic nitrogen, they actually propose:

    the only way to increase ethanol production from corn and reduce nitrogen runoff would be for Americans to stop eating meat, thereby freeing up corn used as livestock feed for other uses.

    While also stating:

    "That [also] means not utilizing all the land to grow crops."

    Apparently they don't see the irony in these two statements. The solution of course is not to grow corn for ruminants at all and dramatically reduce its usage for other livestock. And not to use corn for ethanol production at all. (excepting a nice corn whiskey) There are other ways to feed animals and distill ethanol more efficiently than using "king corn" surpluses. So step one is to stop subsidizing the over production of corn and soy and changing our production models to more efficient regenerative models of production that don't cause AGW.

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  11. RedBaron: Thanks for the detailed response. There is indeed much for me and others to digest. :) 

    BTW, what is Sir Albert Howard's dire prediction?

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  12. RedBaron:

    Did you have a hand in writing the following article? Seriously, does it square with your position?

    Looking to the Earth Itself as a Climate Solution by Georina Gustin, InsideClimate News, Sep 28, 2016

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  13. @11 John,

    You said, "BTW, what is Sir Albert Howard's dire prediction?"

     No less than the complete collapse of agriculture, taking both human civilization and a good portion the biosphere with it. Keep in mind though, he actually didn't think that would happen. He always assumed humanity would not be foolish enough to continue down that doomed path. Here we are though, 70 years later, and not only are we still stuck on that path, but actually regulating against and subsidizing against correcting it! His words of caution seem extraordinarily pithy today.

    "The first duty of the agriculturalist must always be to understand that he is part of nature and can not escape from his environment." - Sir Albert Howard

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  14. @12 John,

     No John, I did not have a hand in writing that article. Furthermore, I think the carbon sequestration potential estimates given are extraordinarily low. I believe those estimates are low because they make the fatal assumption that we are required to keep the basic production models we have in place now. (ie king corn, CAFOs, and corn and soy biofuels) Instead of replacing those fatally flawed production models, they instead base their estimates on improving them so they are less destructive.

    My advocated approach would completely bypass most of that, because there is only so much improvement that can be made as long as the directive from the USDA remains to overproduce grains, promote corn fed beef and total confinement pork and poultry, and increase corn fermented ethanol. (CAFOs are at 97%, so they are mostly maxed out already)

    You need to remember, within the system they created, there is only so much improvement that can be made. Most farmers and the majority of the infrastructure is nearing maximum efficiency. In order to achieve the much better efficiencies, you would be forced to make USDA change their directives so we can change the whole system to a more efficient one. This is closely related to the post I made a while back showing how we could restructure the buffer stock scheme. (and related regulations)

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  15. John Hartz @8

    Having skimmed through bits of IPCC reports, I am amazed at the vast amount of work these reports represent.  From my technical-writing perspective I'm only too aware of the enormous difficulty of the task.

    However, one must still bear in mind the comment in the article about "increasingly unreadable reports".  And having studied specifically the SPM, I know that a good technical writer or two would make a marked difference to the readability of the document.  In its current form it is just not easy reading for a non-scientist.

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  16. RedBaron:

    Would you be interested in synthesizing your posts into an article for posting on the SkS website? 

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  17. @16 John Hartz,

     I have a SBIRP Phaze 1 grant proposal to finalize in the next couple weeks to meet the deadline. Once I have completed that, I will probably have some spare time to make a synthesis. But to keep it short and sweet, I would probably need you to more precisely define the topic. I do have a tendancy to ramble on regarding related side issues. You know? The whole "systems science" thingy where everything it related to everything else! ;)


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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] You can always author more than one article, or break-up a long article into parts. Please submit an outline of the ground you would like to cover using the "Contact Us" button at the bottom of the page. All draft articles submitted for publication on SkS will undergo a "peer review" by members of the SkS all-volunteer author team. 

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