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Blog

The psychology of climate-change scepticism

By Margaret Harris

As the person who (with editor Matin Durrani) compiles letters and web comments for the “Feedback” section of Physics World, I’ve been paying close attention to the flood of comments on physicsworld.com’s various climate-change articles.

A majority of the comments have been negative, as many readers will have noticed, and the same has been true for feedback in the form of letters and emails. On the face of it, this is pretty typical, even for a good magazine: angry readers write letters, while happy readers, by and large, do not.

But I have to wonder what else might be going on that is specific to the issue of climate change. Most people who make negative comments have not read an enormous number of peer-reviewed publications on the subject; at best, they seem to have read an enormous number of websites set up by avowed climate-change sceptics. However, neither do they appear to be in the pay of the fossil-fuel industry, as some environmentalists have charged. So why is there such a huge amount of vitriol out there against the idea that the climate is changing, and humans are (at least partly) responsible?

The answer, it seems, may be partly down to human psychology — at least according to a report from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University. Liz Kalaugher, editor of environmentalresearchweb.org (one of physicsworld.com‘s sister websites within the Institute of Physics Publishing) has written a very good summary of the report here . Alternatively, you can download a guide to the CRED report here.

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15 comments

  1. John Mashey

    Thanks, I’ve skimmed it and it looks like a useful guide, although much more for communication than for analyzing why you get such intense comments. [I'll print and maybe comment in more detail when I'm not out of ink. :-)]
    Peter Gwynne here at Physics World attracted many of the sorts of comments to which you allude. I mentioned this (very long) paper that I wrote about the recent petition to the APS:
    another-silly-climate-petition-exposed @ DeSMogBlog (and Peter and I have talked a bit).
    For this topic (psychology), you might read:
    p.1-16: Introduction, demographics of the petition signers especially p.14-15 on politics.
    p.42-45 Why?
    This offers some frameworks and catalogs I’ve been collecting or reasons why people seem to get into anti-science viewpoints in general, but with some special-casing for climate anti-science.
    [These are 3 pieces of a larger set, but enough to get the idea.]
    At least for the sample analyzed in the paper (mostly Physics PhDs, some quite distinguished), only a few signers have any direct connections I could with fossil fuel companies or petroleum research, and p.45 speculates on the plausible other reasons for signing.
    You might try the catalog there and see if the any of the reasons fit the sorts of letters you get.

  2. Paul

    “But I have to wonder what else might be going on that is specific to the issue of climate change.”
    I can explain what else is going on with respect to my own thinking. I think there is good evidence for climate change. There is also evidence that human input may exacerbate the warming trend. Why then would I ever get annoyed by citations of climate change? Because to many the acceptance of that premise affords them a sense of entitlement. Currently in congress there are bills pending which are dubbed cap and trade legislation. Provisions of those bills would make fossil and coal useage more expensive so as to discourage their use in favor of alternative energy sources. The effect of this would be increased home heating bills, added costs to manufacturing processes and fewer jobs. Estimates on the extent of the effects vary but the legislation is binding on only one group of people- Americans.
    There are two problems with a single minded focus on climate change. First supporters of laws, intended to address the problem, wear science blinders. They can cite evidence for climate change but often are clueless about the science supporting specific remedial legislation. Their allegiance to legislation is scientifically grounded with respect to the problem but not its solution.
    Second, the USA cannot and should not be a lone ranger on this issue. Having watched unilateralism by George Bush condemned, it is particularly galling to see American leaders indulging in environmental unilaterlism. All the more so during a severe recession when the poorest among us would bear the heaviest burdens of the legislative effects. There are trade-offs that need to be acknowledged.

  3. Lysenko's disciple

    Dear Margaret,
    I certainly cannot speak for everyone, but I believe my personal feelings about climate change will be common to many scientists.
    It arises, I think, from a combination of several factors. To myself at least, the root cause is overwhelming frustration at how the scientific process has been applied and become distorted in the area of climate change. The scientific method should be based above all on rational scientific debate. Instead, with climate change, it has become a highly emotive issue. In how many other fields, for example, are scientists labelled ‘sceptics’? Is a astrophysicist who believes in MOND labelled a ‘sceptic’ by the more numerous dark matter proponents? Of course not. Yet the use of ‘sceptic’ in many reports, including your own here, elicits an emotive response in what should be a field of science. I think that this stifling of scientific debate with emotive responses is what leads to the flood of ‘negative comments’ in such climate change articles.
    As to the nature of ‘scepticism’, I think this is individual to each person whether (as the link to the report in your article states) it is due to a short-term world view, ‘single action bias’ or a ‘finite pool of worry’. My personal discomfort with the climate change debate, as a computational physicist specialising in fluid dynamics, is the general lack of understanding by the public in the construction and inherent error in computational systems. Discretisation errors in computations, parameterisation of very complex processes into linear relations, boundary layer coupling, covering the vast parameter space of such models and so forth are hardly discussed. Computational models are a useful tool but no more than a tool. If we truly believe computers can predict the future I don’t see how we are any better than Roman haruspices looking at the entrails of animals!
    When this is coupled with application of massive economic policy and debate about whether extreme schemes such as blocking out the light from the sun are viable, both of which will affect us all, a backlash of people who feel they are not being heard is, I think, inevitable. This is not to mention a campaign of informing the public using doomsday scenarios and frequent sensational media reporting. There is now an atmosphere of such frustration for reasonable debate that it would hardly be surprising if no amount of applied human psychology could ever win ‘hearts and minds’.
    Yours sincerely

  4. Like a lot of scientists, I’m somewhat taken aback by the vilification of colleagues in climate science and by the ease with which many commentators assume that climate scientists are either unthinking fools following a trend, or biased falsifiers of evidence. I think there are two simple points that are not mentioned in the link you give.
    1. The evidence is difficult
    As you know, global warming is a very gradual, almost imperceptible trend that has only been painstakingly established by a great many large scientific studies and meta-studies. It involves an averaging process over long periods of time and huge distances and often seems to be in conflict with everyday experience i.e. local weather patterns. Not all commentators realise that science is often counterintuitive.
    2. The models
    Not only does GW deal with gradual trends involving many interdependent parameters, it also deals with the prediction of future such trends. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult area of science – even professional scientists outside the field have difficulty understanding the estimate of uncertainties in the models so it’s not surprising the public is confused.
    I personally think that it is a great triumph of science that GW was detected it at all – the problem is the communication of a field of science that is difficult both in theory and evidence. Perhaps we scientists outside the field could do more to help our colleagues convince the skeptics?

  5. John Mashey

    re: #4 Cormac
    Actually, I don’t think it’s quite that hard, but it really depends on one’s location. The *biological* evidence for AGW is utterly compelling, but it’s more obvious in some places, but I don’t think Ireland is one of those.
    I recommend:
    http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4-wg2-chapter1.pdf
    Chapter 1: Assessment of Observed Changes and Responses in Natural and Managed Systems
    This details the truly vast numbers of observations on insects, birds, animals, fish and plants, most of whose migration/flowering/range changes indicate warming. In many places, sensitive species are moving poleward or uphill, if they can. I wouldn’t expect much effect yet in islands with maritime climate and low hills, but one certainly sees it in continental areas with more temperature extremes and easier migrations.
    There can be no arguments about Urban Heat Island and similar effects, because most wildlife doesn’t live near humans or read thermometers (one never knows with racoons, since they grab our pool thermometer and leave it by the pool).
    But here are some effects we see in North America:
    1) Poleward motion of bark beetles, which are kept suppressed by occasional cold spells in fall or winter. They are killing all the mature lodgepole pines in Colorado, and have recently begun thriving in British Columbia, moving North.
    http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfp/mountain_pine_beetle/
    BC has 2/3 of Ireland’s population in 10X the area, so it’s not exactly urban.
    2) Kudzu is a plant deterred by cold spells. It is moving up the East Coast. U Toronto researchers have studied it, because they expect it to survive in lower Ontario within 10 years, an they really don’t want it there.
    3) Canada is actually seeing West Nile virus (mosquitoes).
    4) Sugar maple trees (important to Vermont) need a certain amount of cold to thrive, are getting less of it, and the sugar maple business is moving North.
    5) People plant vineyards as poleward as they can. Over the last 20-30 years, they’ve been moving Northward, up the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, as the climate warms. The BC vintners are happy about that, and the wines aren’t bad.
    On the other hand, owners of local ski areas are less happy, although on balance, they are getting more business from folks in Australia, or even us from California. We still get plenty of snow in Lake Tahoe, but it’s less predictable than it was 25 years ago, so we now ski in Canada most of the time. (Of course, Southern Vermont/New Hampshire ski resorts are closing. In Switzerland, banks will no longer lend money to ski resorts below certain altitudes, but of course, there they can *see* the glaciers heading uphill.) Admittedly, this sort of classifies winemakers and skiers as natural species :-)
    California winegrowers are *not* happy about warming trends.
    6) In California mountains, we have these cute little furry animals called *pikas*, They have a narrow temperature range, die when it warms, and are moving uphill. Unlike insects and birds, they cannot migrate long distances…
    http://www.ewire.com/display.cfm/Wire_ID/4163
    There are many more examples.
    None of this depends on complex data analysis or models, but it does depend on being someplace where “edge effects” are obvious.

  6. John Duffield

    I attempted to download the CRED report. I found myself being asked for personal details and my email address, followed by a message reading “Thank you! We will send you a link to ‘The Psychology of Climate Change Communication’ in early November”. After half an hour, I have still not received an email. I’m not happy about this. So I’ll say something about the summary instead.
    In the opening paragraph the moot point is this: “in the UK the number of people believing that claims about the effects of climate change have been exaggerated rose from 15% to 29% between 2003 and 2008″. I and many others do NOT believe that human activity has NO affect upon world climate. However we have come to resent the use of terms such “climate change denier”. This reminds us of religious conviction, because it is a denunciation. It smacks of “heretic”. Thus we take extra note of David Attenbourough being slapped down for having the temerity to raise the issue of overpopulation. We see what appears to be a wall of propaganda issuing from what we perceive to be an interest group who stand to gain from portraying climate change as the only problem we face, making light of energy security, terrorism, war, religious fundamentalism, rapacious human greed and the tragedy of the commons, the economy, pandemic, and of course overpopulation. And we observe that to a man, those who preach eco-piety have a carbon footprint the size of Texas. Al Gore is getting rich. So we find this so-called psychology to be utterly patronizing:
    “Accessing our experiential processing system is much more likely to motivate us into action about climate change – the best way to do this is through images, films, analogies and stories, using emotionally charged communication and simulation exercises”.
    This isn’t psychology, or scientific rationalism, this is an instruction book for propaganda. It only deepens our suspicions of profiteeering by a greenwash bandwagon coupled with axe-grinding left-wing radicals who say no to CCS, to nuclear power, and to anything else. Yes, people “may be more likely to change their behaviour if they believe their way of life is threatened”.
    That’s what you’re seeing.

  7. Peter Gill

    Some years ago we were talking about global warming. This was attributed by some to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases particularly carbon dioxide. As far as I am aware scepticism related and continues to relate to the mechanisms of climate change rather than the reality of climate change. Although the IPCC Summary documents give the impression of consensus about the science the papers upon which such statements rely often tell a different story.
    In the UK those of us who have studied the subject cannot be unaware of the active participation of learned institutions, including the Royal Society, effectively conducting what can only be described as a propaganda campaign for the AGW explanation of global warming. In particular there has been a largely successful attempt to deny a platform to anyone that would put a contrary position either in terms of the science or in deed in terms of what should be done about climate change that usually boils down to an argument for adaptation rather than mitigation.
    The current position offends those of us who have been brought up to operate the scientific method.
    Since the El Nino event of 1998, giving a peak average atmospheric temperature, subsequent global average temperatures have been down. That is not to say that this is necessarily a beginning of a cooling trend but it has been sufficiently worrying to those that wish to maintain belief in the AGW signature that the term “global warming” has been replaced by “climate change”. Thus as a shorthand those who are not convinced that climate change has in recent years been largely caused by human activities have become climate change deniers whereas we are actually simply challenging the mechanisms of climate change. If you want to look at the satellite data I suggest you visit http://www.drroyspencer.com/
    The origin of the “belief” problem” to use an AGW’s vocabulary is that the climate models upon which the anthropogenic signature depends are too simplistic in relation to the enormously complicated processes that govern climate. There is clearly not space to go into the gaps in the models which incidentally would make the Grand Canyon look like a small scratch. However for those who are interested may I recommend Peter Taylor’s new book “CHILL- A reassessment of global warming theory” , Clairview Books 2009 ISBN 978 1 905570 19 5. For the layman a pretty good treatment can be found in journalist Ian Wishart’s book “AIR CON – The seriously inconvenient truth about global warming”, Howling at the Moon Publishing Ltd2009, ISBN 978 0 9582401 4 7.
    Finally I should say that scepticism is a vital ingredient of science and it is good to hear that despite the best attempts of those who practice the AGW religion it is nevertheless alive and well.

  8. S Ender

    This psychologising of the climate-change debate betrays two things about its proponents; firstly, an attitude towards sceptics that is deeply cynical, contemptuous and patronizing; secondly, a belief that subliminal psychological techniques (brainwashing, in all but name) can and should be used to make sceptics change their minds – a belief that is perfectly Orwellian in its sinister implications.
    This project seems to be based upon two premises: (a) all sceptics are scientifically illiterate, and wouldn’t understand the science even if you tried to explain it to them and (b) all sceptics are stupid and psychologically pliable, and can be easily manipulated into believing what you want them to believe.
    I think you will find that, where a great many sceptics are concerned, both these premises are profoundly mistaken. Many of us are both scientifically educated to degree level or higher, in fields that are highly relevant to climate science, such as mathematics, physics, Earth science and computational modelling. And many of us are very smart, articulate and perceptive, and would quickly see through any clumsy attempts at psychological manipulation by the climate-change thought police, which would be likely to backfire on them quite spectacularly.
    So I have a different suggestion for your consideration:
    Why not try treating us with a little respect for a change?
    Instead of dismissing our opinions as those of stupid, ignorant people who ‘don’t know the science’, why not try listening to us, and actually attempting to answer our questions and concerns? You will then find that not all sceptics are the selfish, ignorant, irrational, irresponsible nay-sayers that the climate-change propaganda machine tries to portray us as. And you will also find that we hold a diversity of opinions on the subject, from complete rejection of climate-change as a concept, to an acceptance of climate-change but not necessarily of global warming (the two are not necessrily synomymous, incidentally), to an acceptance of global warming itself but uncertainty about whether it is natural or man-made, and whether, if it is man-made, it is caused by CO2 or something else entirely. (And no, the CO2-global warming link has not been proven to our satisfaction – or we would not be sceptics, would we?)
    In other words, we want an open, honest, public debate about climate-change, because we are intelligent, educated people who can think for ourselves. We are fed up with being treated like stupid children who should just believe whatever they are told by their supposed betters. Our politicians are generally no more scientifically literate than we are, and in many cases considerably less so, so why should we believe their pronouncements on global warming when they cannot speak from any personal expertise on the subject? And the climate scientists who advise them must come clean about their methods, their data, their previous mistakes, and the inherent uncertainties in their computer models and the predictions they generate. Because many of us know enough about science to know shoddy research and outright scientific fraud when we see it.
    So that’s my suggestion: Forget trying to brainwash us; just stop treating us like idiots, and talk to us like intelligent adults if you want to win us over to your point of view. And you will only win us over with hard data, sound science and credible arguments, not vague speculation, scare-mongering and emotive propaganda. Most sceptics do not have any particular emotional investment in our position, so we will happily admit we were wrong, change our minds and join your side – but only when you have convinced us that yours is the side of truth, and not before.

  9. Greg Goodknight

    Rather than “The psychology of climate-change scepticism”, the psychology of climate-change alarmism is perhaps the more interesting today. 60+ megabytes of files, data and emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, home of the keepers and interpreters of climate data including Michael Mann (of Hockey Stick fame) and Keith Briffa, had been removed from the CRU without permission and posted on a Russian server. They have since been scattered worldwide.
    Many very interesting tidbits have been discovered, though I’ll not quote them here. The information has been substantially authenticated by both CRU insiders and outsiders whose emails have been made public.
    Let’s just say it’s especially damning to see emails directing scientific team members to delete emails on a topic once a freedom of information act request for public data is anticipated.

  10. You could call Einstein a Newton Sceptic.
    For me it’s obvious that a simple knowledge of science disproves large volumes of the statements coming from the AGW scammers. The models just cannot predict the future accurately. Just like inflation eats away at the value of money, exponential error eats away at the data content of recursive models.
    The recent ethical-hacking release of data from East Anglia Poly shows that it’s those in the academic bubble who have psychological problems.

  11. Rod Eaton

    The public is highly suspicious of a ‘one horse race!’ This is even more acute when the horse is a blurred image and the race so complex that the non-rules allow specific hurdles to be ignored without mentioning them to the punters.
    The ‘single runner’ is promoted by ridiculous anti-science TV adverts in the UK showing CO2 as a black cloud and foretelling of doom and gloom worthy of Al Gore.
    Then, as we still have a limited freedom of speach, the public discovers that there are actually other horses in the race that they were not even told about. In fact as Greg points out, there is evidence of a Hadley Centre fix!! Such evidence as the infamous ‘hockey stick curve’ debunking was made public in the US some time ago. Surveys logically show an even more sceptical public in the USA.
    So much for the public interface and back to science.
    There is much evidence from cross-disciplinary scientists to dispute the anthropogenic climate hypothesis and likely effects of climate change. Hence the scientists pointing out the flaws, which have been multiple and endemic in the way the issue has been handled, are properly following the scientific ethic of scepticism. This is normally properly encouraged in science but because of alarmism the professional and public bodies scare themselves onto the politicised bandwagon.
    I know it is not obvious to some but the problem has been created by the exclusion of the alternative theories of many eminent scientists who have sound evidence of natural causation or why AGW is incoorect in itself. Such scientists are not some kind of cranks, they are as expert in their fields as any (Professors, doctorates, MSc, BSc) and there are hundreds of them! (Clmatologists, Astrophysicists, Physicists, Geologists, Chemists, Mathematicians, Statisticians, Energy Analysts, Meteorologists, Technologists etc etc)
    The IPCC process of creating a politicised SPM (sorry-Summary for Policymakers)is in fact a wart on the face of science.
    The facts of the matter are that there has been a condemnation of any views sceptical of AGW. However, as Greg points out, there is a lot of doubt as to the methods of ‘establishment’ bodies in glueing themselves to one hypothesis.
    AGW is really disgracing science by this sort of statement by the author: So why is there such a huge amount of vitriol out there against the idea that the climate is changing, and humans are (at least partly) responsible? This is like the UUSR when people dissented communism and were treated for mental illness becasue they did not see the state control as the best option. What about the vitriol against the realsist (sceptics) by the alarmists.
    Few realistic scientists deny that an increase in greenhouse gases will have ‘some’ effect on global temperature. The debate is challenging the amount of this effect.
    The UN-IPCC climate models invalidate themselves against the data but the ‘science establishment’ does not see this as worthy of severe doubt despite the known and multiple uncertainties of modeling climate. It is left to dissenters, many themselves being IPCC participants to point out the shortcomings of the IPCC processes, the hypothesis and the models.
    The last straw is when the ‘sceptics’ are derided as needing psycho-analysis and the alarmists, who actually scare sensitive members of the pubolic (on very dubious evidence)are not under the same scrutiny.
    Where collegues, is the unbiased scientific ethic or even sense in that mindset?

  12. Rod Eaton

    I have what I think is an important addition to make to give real exmples to counter this idea that there is some sort of unscientific or strange mentality about sceptics of AGW that needs to be addressed.
    The physical scientists such as Climatologists, Geologists and Astrophysicists are, of course, the authorities on causation of climate change and they hold a range of different views. However, much of the interpretation of data trends etc falls in the camp of analysts. We can review the data and trends and assess the statements made on them.
    One example is the NASA graph ‘Global Land – Ocean Temperature Index’(1880 to 2009). If you look at this published data, you will note that three vertical green bars are superimposed by the author. These guide the eye to see a trend which is not a correct regression line.
    They exaggerate in the following way:
    - The mid points of these bars start on the left at a 1891 low of -0.3 deg C;
    - the next centres on a high point (+ 0.1 deg C) around 1944;
    - the final marker on the right centres on a high point of + 0.55 deg C just after 2000.
    This all highlights a trend that is misleading and exaggerated implying a rise of around 0.8 deg C over the 20th century (nearly 1 deg C since 1880).
    An unbiased linear regression analysis reduces this temperature rise to nearer 0.5 deg C for the whole 20th Century. It is also evident that the average cooling from 1998 is there but conveniently lost in the clutter past the final green marker on the right.
    Another example from the NASA data set: ‘Monthly Mean Global Surface Temperature’ 1996 to 2008. There is warming evidenced from 1996 to 1998. However, applying linear regression analysis to the data from 1998 shows slight cooling from the Met Station averages (black dots) and cooling of around 0.1 deg C from the Land-Ocean average (red dots).
    In its ‘Hansen mode,’ the NASA statement is ‘the warming continues’ – no periodicity mentioned. Any comment on the cooing trend detected since 1998 is oddly missing although clearly shown on the second graph I mentioned (but with no regression line or markers shown to give a casual observer a steer).
    The point I make is that taking what I was trained to believe is an objective view of the data, has apparently become some sort of psychological problem to be analysed. Apparently misleading markers and failure to show the recent trend is now ‘objective mathematical science’ and ‘warrants a medal or a NPP.’
    As an analyst, I became sceptical of AGW because that’s were the figures took me. The steady regular gentle sinusoidal rise in CO2 concentrations does not match the erratic and apparently unpredictable temperature profile, which is up and down with protracted cyclical warming and cooling episodes.
    Many biologists and environmentalists observe that the minor increase in global temperature is nothing to be alarmed about no matter what its cause. Are they also suffering some sort of mental problem like the geologists who tell us there is nothing unique about 20th Century temperature or climate change?

  13. S Ender

    Regarding the psychologising of climate-change skepticism, and the government’s willingness to use underhand psychological techniques to win the argument, these two documents make disturbing reading:
    http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/RulesOfTheGame.pdf
    Quote: “2. Forget the climate change detractors
    Those who deny climate change science are irritating, but
    unimportant. The argument is not about if we should deal with climate change, but how we should deal with climate change.”
    That nicely encapsulates the dismissive contempt with which the AGW establishment regards skeptics.
    More on this trendy marketing psychobabble approach to manipulating people’s beliefs about AGW:
    http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/NewRules:NewGame.pdf

  14. The human psychology of climate change scepticism is definitely an interesting topic. The flood of negative commments on physicsworld.com in response to various articles on climate change is partly due to, as Margaret Harris says, human nature to write in response to an article if they disagree with the content of it much more than if they agree with the content of it. However, as Margaret Harris points out, there is an increased amount of scepticism around the issue of climate change. Human beings tend to be sceptical about things they do not understand fully, and climate change is definitely a topic that the average human being does not understand fully. Therefore the average human being tends to have a certain amount of scepticism about whether it actually exists, and to what extent it exists. As Liz Kalaugher says in her summary of the CRED report, human beings tend to selectively take in information that fits in with their existing belief systems, and discredit information that does not fit in with their belief systems. If a person has a firm belief that climate change does not exist, as some people do, then it is very difficult for them to change their point of view regardless of the amount of evidence provided to oppose their belief.

  15. Since we are writing about The psychology of climate-change scepticism (Blog) – physicsworld.com, The term ‘psychosocial’ refers to the close relationship between the individual and the collective aspects of any social entity. They mutually influence each other. The ‘psychological’ effects are caused by a range of experiences that affect the emotions, behaviour, thoughts, memory and learning capacity of an individual, while the social effects are the shared experiences of disruptive events that affect the relations between people. The social effects also have an economic and political dimension, since many people suffer multiple consequences of, for example, disasters or armed conflicts.

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