Deeper Climate Change Discussions IV. Apocalypses and Trade-Offs

Thanks to everyone participating in our discussion on climate!.

Let me restate: we are leaving the “let’s not worry about it” folks by the side of the road for our discussion right now.  We heard you. We are not convinced and are unlikely to be. Speaking for myself, I don’t know for sure. But I also know that you don’t know for sure either. We can still act without knowing for sure.  Like wildfire mitigation efforts, we do them without knowing for sure a wildfire will hit our house while we live there. As Mike says, it’s about risks -and includes uncertainties and values.

Anyway, the last topic was exploring the differences between 4’s and 5’s in my original typology.. the difference was between “we need to focus on reducing GHGs” and “if we don’t stop fossil fuels apocalyptic things will happen.”

As it turns out, that was an oversimplification.  There are at least three different areas to explore 1) what needs to be done, 2) how quickly and 3) how apocalyptic future consequences might be.  Clearly all of these are related. If it was easy to fix, then decarbonization could happen rapidly and perhaps there would be no apocalyptic consequences.

One thing you may have noticed as you read the comments on the last piece is how few relate to atmospheric climate models, or physical science at all.

In fact, the discussion reminded me of the famous Thomas Sowell quote:

“Politics allows people to vote for the impossible, which may be one reason why politicians are often more popular than economists, who keep reminding people that there is no free lunch and that there are no ‘solutions’ but only trade-offs.”

If there are trade-offs, then indeed no particular discipline or expert, or even way of thinking, can claim to know the right answer.  Because someone calls themself a “climate expert” does not mean that they know any more about these trade-offs than anyone else.

First, about apocalypticism,

That was fairly vague, I grant you. Carl suggested:

a) “involving or causing sudden great damage or suffering” or more narrowly b) “involving a sudden and large-scale alteration in state.”

But if you believe that climate has been involved in wildfires, then a) has already happened.  We won’t know about b, probably until it’s too late.  So maybe that’s not a good word to use at all.

The next comment was he ever-helpful Anonymous leaving a link to a paper written by a philosophy professor and fortunately leaving a summary:

“All real-life decisions have the decision-maker face some kind of knowledge gap. Therefore, an idea of precautionary decision-making needs to be able to guide decision-makers with regard to:(1) if the knowledge gap faced is to be tolerated, and a decision made in spite of it, or(2) if the decision should be delayed while attempting to close or narrow the gap,(3) and, if so, how much time, effort and resources should be spent on that endeavor.”

Many of us may remember that there is in fact a social science field called “decision sciences” that has explored these kinds of questions in great depth (Al Lundgren cited an economics paper from 1921) .  In fact, my first memories of discussions of uncertainty  were Lundgren’s forest economics papers in the 1970’s- even one I recall on uncertainty in planning, though I can’t find it right now.

Jon then mentioned trade-offs as well:

 Where action is needed to mitigate climate change, it puts a premium on the tradeoff analysis, including on alternative locations that trade off some energy efficiency/cost for species protection.

And yet, trade-off analysis a project at a time doesn’t really work, so we’d need wider scale planning. Vladimir suggested that we need a plan, something like the Public Lands Commission in the 60’s. It’s conceivable that different alternatives could be looked at at either the national or state level and people familiar with the physical reality of building or changing, and the economic realities of who will pay and who will benefit, plus the availability of labor, capital and mineral and other resources.

Then there are values that haven’t yet been discussed in public fora… like how self-sufficient do we want to be as a country? Do we want to protect any domestic supply chains/jobs?

And Mike looked at it through the risk assessment lens..

Lastly, I try look at ACC through a risk analysis lens. What’s the worst that can happen if we continue down our current path of adding CO2 and other “greenhouse” gases (it’s not just about CO2) to the atmosphere vs what is the worst that can happen if we reduce those outputs and prepare for a warmer and, in some areas, drier future.

Who wins and who loses from any policy is ultimately in the realm of politics.  We folks who have spent time nestled in the depths of NEPA documents know that the best we can do is fairly describe the pros and cons and uncertainties insofar as they are known.  And present them to the public for feedback and additional info. I can see why maybe we don’t need to do that for national security policy, but decarbonization could be an opportunity to be as rational as we can be.. involving all the research disciplines, and people working on the ground.  No one discipline has the key to trade-offs, clearly if you are really an expert in industrial solar cells, then you aren’t an expert in hydro storage, electric cars, or carbon capture technologies. And to circle back, economists also have an important role to play in evaluating trade-offs.

Thanks again to everyone contributing to the discussion, and new people feel free to step in!

28 thoughts on “Deeper Climate Change Discussions IV. Apocalypses and Trade-Offs”

  1. I just wanted to throw this out for the pursuit of carbon neutral outputs and economic parts of the discussion. It gives a feel for scale in one of the industries that uses a lot fossil fuels. These are excerpts from a Bloomberg article.

    “Last week saw two major milestones in the global effort to make steel production less damaging to the climate. Boston Metal raised $262 million of venture funding for its electricity-based steel- and metal-making technology, while Sweden’s H2 Green Steel assembled €1.5 billion in equity to build its first plant that will use hydrogen to create steel.”

    “Boston Metal’s series C round will not go to building a series of full-scale production plants, or even one: Instead, the company will spend it on growing its team and demonstrating its technology commercially. Hundreds of millions of dollars, in the steel sector, are a starting point at achieving scale, not an end point.” 

    “H2 Green Steel’s private placement from at least 15 investors will go toward a large-scale production plant. That equity capital is not all that will be needed, though; the company has also gotten commitments for more than €3.5 billion in debt financing. While H2 Green’s production plans are ambitious, they’re not on the same scale: It aims to produce 5 million tons of steel by 2030, which would be a sliver of the output of the entire sector. In 2021, the world’s steelmakers produced 1.95 billion tons….”

    Reaching anthropogenic carbon neutral levels will take a lot of time and money. In my opinion, and that of several economists whose opinions I have read, pursuing a carbon neutral society would be a giant stimulus to the global economy.

    It will take a long time to reach carbon neutral goals, so there is also this to think about as a de-carbonizing solution discussed in this 2007 article:

    And more recently in a NYT opinion piece:

    I think the law of unintended consequences would rear its head from humans fertilizing the oceans with iron, but the earth has been doing it for hundreds of million years, so who knows?

    One last thought, and one that I have already expressed in another thread on TSW, some scientist say there are at least a few decades of increasing global temperatures baked in even if humans could be carbon neutral tomorrow. Oceans will continue to rise, temperatures increase and droughts worsen in some areas potentially making parts of the world uninhabitable. How will countries/governments respond to climate refugees, especially if the numbers hit the multi-millions?

    Okay, one more last thought, I agree with Vladimir, we need an international plan to tackle climate change and implement it.

  2. Hi Mike: I think I’m one of Sharon’s “let’s not worry about it folks,” but that’s not entirely true. My worry is that so many people have become frightened of an unknown future that they’re being herded into the wrong direction by a relatively small handful of opportunists. Because of that perspective, I am going to agree with you and Vladimir about the need for an international plan.

    Nobody knows the future, but weathermen have become pretty good at most three- or five-day predictions for an important part of the future. No one predicted the Internet or the pandemic or how either would exist even a few days into the future, and no one — even the thousands with expensive government computers — knows what the weather will be like or where and how people will be living 30 years from now. Or even next year, depending in part on wars, volcanoes, disease, and technology. Facts.

    As a certified scientist who has researched, discussed, and documented “climate change” science and politics since it was invented by those disciplines (“Nuclear Winter”), I personally came to the conclusion that: 1) a “Global temperature,” however derived, is a mostly meaningless measure; and 2) CO2 is a very minor driver of the climate, and it is probably at or near its saturation point so far as its ability as a climate influencer. Even if it doubles or triples in the atmosphere, I think it has mostly reached its limit in that department.

    That being said, I agree that a plan is needed. A significant number of the world’s population seems to think that we need to start changing light bulbs or begin eating bugs or help pay for rich people’s electric cars in an effort to control the environment. Worse, they mostly seem to think the earth is going to turn scalding hot and there will be droughts, deaths, and mass migrations if people keep using petroleum products. Apparently no positive thoughts of turning Greenland into a grape-growing region again, or the ease of modern travel. Or that a Nuclear Winter would even be worse.

    Since we really have no idea what the future will be like, including the weather, yet an international plan is needed to help chart our common futures, I suggest we plan for the worst. Given modern technology, and acknowledging that politics doesn’t allow for the development of nuclear energy for some reason, I suggest that the best plan is to greatly accelerate our production of coal, oil, and natural gas and begin putting a significant amount of that production into storage for potential future climate catastrophes. Air conditioning for Global Warming, home heating for Nuclear Winter, and cheap, dependable transportation for migrants.

    In the meantime, more equity economically for the middle class and greater freedom and opportunity for the poor. We know the history of fossil fuel use and its beneficial effects on our lives. With greater production we could begin providing greater equity to the poorer nations and peoples of the world as well. And if we somehow punched the Globe’s temperature up a degree or two through this effort, we would have the capacity to deal with it — and would have the scientific observation, documentation, and analysis necessary to give the engineers to fix. If need be.

    Other thoughts?

    • Since you asked, what facts are you using to conclude that people are “being herded into the wrong direction by a relatively small handful of opportunists?”

      It sounds like you are advocating “produce it but don’t use it” for fossil fuels. I’m wondering who would pay for that.

      • Hi John: I said “worry” not “fact.” Greta Thunberg, John Kerry, and Al Gore for strong indicators. I didn’t say “don’t use it” at all — I said increase production and store a significant portion. References to national and international equity assume an increased use and cheaper prices among poor and middle class. In my perspective, definitely a case of the benefits outweighing the risks (and by a large margin).

    • I don’t think there’s such a thing as a scientist certification, but if there was one I doubt you would have a climate science certification. Global temperature is very meaningful as it is a major factor in regional or local temperature, we have seen past climates where increased global temperature resulted in large-scale ecological changes. CO2 is one of the main drivers of global temperature on Earth, as documented observationally through past and present temperature increases and theoretically (beginning with Arhennius around 1900).

      There is maybe some value to your economic arguments, but it is muddled by unreasonable and unsupported assumptions about the functioning of the climate system.

      • Daniel: I am glad you have opinions. Since you don’t have a last name, it is hard to take them seriously. “Dad humor” doesn’t always reveal itself in print. “Certified scientist” was my way of poking fun at my PhD. Technically, my field is “historical ecologist.” No idea who you are or why you seem to think the way that you do.

        • Gotcha, I missed that, my bad. I am a climate scientist, and also have a lot of issues with my field, but I find it embarrassing when people try to reject well proven theories without even understanding the underlying arguments. For science to work well we need skepticism like yours, but the weight of evidence to overturn an established theory needs to be equivalent to the weight of evidence supporting it. Also, we need skeptics like you to understand the underlying science before arguing so we can even have a coherent conversation.

          Maybe I underestimated you and you do have the physics background, so my first question would be why are the basic assumptions of Arrhenius incorrect, leading to your conclusion that CO2 is not a very effective forcing?

          • “Daniel”: I am glad to hear you are a “climate scientist. Not sure how that keeps you from using your name in public, but does that mean you are a modeler?

            Not sure what you classify as “well proven theories,” either, so that is difficult. And no, I don’t have a physics background, but know several people who do. My studies are more similar to botany and anthropology than the so-called “hard sciences.”

            My distrust of CO2 models has more to do with observations, measurements, and discussions with knowledgeable individuals than Arrhenius’ conclusions. I’d be more interested in your actual credentials and/or publications, assuming they exist, than a quiz.

            • Because of your lack of knowledge of the system of interest, I can’t really have a proper discussion with you. For an analogy, it would be like arguing with a car mechanic about whether a repair is necessary without even knowing the basics of how a car works. I don’t mean to be rude, but to take such an outlier stance on a well studied issue, you really need to have better knowledge.

    • “‘Global temperature,’ however derived, is a mostly meaningless measure”

      I interpret global temperature as having an important meaning, namely the amount of energy in Earth’s atmospheric system. The atmosphere is a dynamic, complex system; certainly adding energy to such a system will change its behavior.

      Another evident meaning has to do with warmer air having the capacity to hold more water than cooler air.

      I will not walk through all the implications of these things, but it should be clear to a certified scientist such as yourself that changing the amount of energy in the atmosphere and the humidity of that atmosphere can have very meaningful effects on human interests. The more we walk those global effects down to local scales, of course, the more uncertainty there is about the exact kind and magnitude of effects. But it is silly to say that the global measure is (mostly) meaningless.

      • Hi Sean: Yes, energy and humidity in the atmosphere are certainly important — with or without certified insights — I just don’t think our efforts to derive a single number to represent such a “dynamic, complex system” are really practical or realistic. A lot of folks disagree with the methods used to derive a single number to represent such a wide array of possibilities, but others, including myself, question the utility of such a result.

        I think the efforts to document and determine variations of global climate are great — but I think the single number representative has been mostly useful to politicians and people making living by exaggerating the potential negative effects of a perpetually changing climate. What does it really tell us about anything that makes a difference to anyone on a practical level not paid for producing or promoting such a number?

        So I stand by my statement. I agree with your observation regarding “local scales,” but think it only strengthens my point.

  3. Stopping the Keystone XL pipeline gave Vlad the Impaler the petrodollars he needed to invade Ukraine. Ash and soot from wildfires in the Siberian taiga are accelerating the loss of Arctic sea ice driving more frequent and deeper polar vortexes

    Each site is treated like a crime scene. Photos are taken. Interviews conducted. Samples collected. All of the evidence will be used, “to punish the aggressor in the international courts,” says Oleksiy Obrizan, the task force’s chairman. Scientists have advocated for strengthening international law to make it easier to hold countries accountable. Last year, an independent panel of international lawyers launched an effort to better define ecocide — or as they put it, “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused” — under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Wildfires in Siberia and the broader global Arctic have an outsize impact on the world’s climate. Scientists believe nearly half of the world’s peatland-stored carbon — carbon that’s been locked away by permafrost and frigid temperatures — is in the Arctic Circle. Wildfires unlock that carbon, releasing more greenhouse gases that worsen global warming. They also blanket snow and ice with black soot, making them melt faster. [NPR]

    Wetlands are being destroyed for cropland, livestock demands on water supplies dwarf the needs of cities, global biodiversity is threatened, Arctic ice packs are disappearing, humans are breeding less nutritious food and pesticides are killing native pollinators.

    • Larry, are you saying that stopping the Keystone pipeline had negative impacts if looked at from the global perspective? Say all the tank, munitions, and production (let alone human lives!) could have been saved if Russia hadn’t been funded by Euro nat gas and oil buyers?

      I think that’s what the rest of us are saying.. each trade-off has impacts on prices, the environment, and national security and should be examined holistically. In a way it’s too complex to unravel and yet I think we should try..

  4. Researchers at the South Dakota School of Mines already know most of the mercury in the state’s lakes has precipitated from emissions released from coal fired power plants in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

    But, the volume of mercury and other heavy metals released by wildfires in Canada and United States is well-documented, too.

    In 2012 the fast-moving Ash Creek Fire burned bridges on US212 near Ashland and Lame Deer, Montana while another blaze nearby on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the Coal Seam Fire spread to some 700 acres. In 2017 wildland fires on private ranch land in southeastern Montana dwarfed those on public ground in the western part of the state. In 2021 a smoldering coal seam started the Richard Spring Fire on the Ashland District of the Custer Gallatin National Forest that burned primarily in non-native cheatgrass beneath a ponderosa pine overstory.

    Within the Fort Union Formation under eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming are maybe thousands of coal seams. The Box Car coal seam has been burning since 1913 and in Custer County, Montana there are some 320 that caused at least 51 wildfires in 2021 alone.

    A burning coal seam might have ignited the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado that evaporated over a thousand homes, caused over two billion dollars in damage and released tons of deadly emissions.

  5. In parts of the Southwest some authorities are so fearful of deficits in water supplies they’ve entertained Durango, Colorado-based Western Weather Consultants’ pitch to acquire a “weather control and precipitation enhancement license” from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission but after criticism for not consulting with pueblos the application was withdrawn in 2022.

    Now, over objections from the environmental community the commission’s Weather Control Committee has approved a Texas company’s bid for weather modification in mostly Republican Chaves, Colfax, Curry, DeBaca, Eddy, Guadalupe, Harding, Lea, Lincoln, Otero, Quay, Roosevelt and Union Counties. Mora and San Miguel Counties were excluded because of flooding in the aftermath of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fires.

    Watersheds in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico provide between 50-75% of the water found in the Rio Grande but irrigators in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas take at least 80% of that from the 1,885 mile long river. A compact limits Colorado to 100,000 acre feet and New Mexico to 200,000 acre feet each year. An acre foot is almost 326,000 gallons.

    The Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation ended its funding for geoengineering in the early 2000s but after the agency mandated conservation efforts in the states that rely on the Colorado River taxpayer dollars are being shot into Earth’s atmosphere once again.

    Exhaust gases from aircraft are indeed mostly water vapor that become visible as a function of the dew point then often form cirrus clouds at higher altitudes and alter microclimates. But, in the name of geoengineering or albedo modification the US Air Force routinely sprays into the atmosphere an aerosol cocktail of silver iodide, lead iodide, aluminum oxide, barium, frozen carbon dioxide, common salt, soot from burning hazardous waste in pits and concocted at some of its bases.

  6. Solar gardens connect multiple residents to electricity without installing their own modules, charge controllers, inverters and batteries. New Mexico is ranked third for solar power potential.

    The cost of subsidizing, manufacturing, transporting, erecting, maintaining then removing just one wind turbine eyesore bat and bird killer would take a thousand subscribers to energy self-reliance. Microgrid technologies are destined to enhance tribal sovereignty, free communities from electric monopolies and net-metering only gives control back to utilities enabled by moral hazard.

    In 2021 a study at Michigan Technological University revealed that far more work is needed to ensure the owners of self-generated electricity systems are not unjustly subsidizing electric utilities.

    In Colorado Xcel charges homeowners 17 cents a kilowatt hour in base rates but only pays 8 cents per kWh to subscribers with rooftop solar who sell their home grown power. So, don’t tie your system to the grid but if you use it as a backup keep your own electricity completely separate from the utility that reads your meter.

    In light of findings in the causes of the Marshall Fire seven lawsuits have been combined as a class action and filed against Earth hater Xcel in Colorado courts but experts expect many more. It could be the end of an horrendous history.

  7. From Sharon’s beginning statement”

    “One thing you may have noticed as you read the comments on the last piece is how few relate to atmospheric climate models, or physical science at all.”

    I for one do relate the the models and physical science. Within the realm of science I see our body of knowledge getting larger, more robust and the error bars are getting smaller as far as the role and source of greenhouse gases and their role in climate change. As we continue to study the issue I do not see that the science is reversing the conclusions of earlier projections and models. Recent analysis of past temperature studies have shown to be pretty accurate even ones from the 1990 and earlier. Science is working quite well.

    Everyone can choose to agree or disagree with the science. The process of science provides a method of participating in the process of furthering our understanding of our physical world and coming up with defendable theory based on the evidence/data. For climate scientist that disagree with with the conclusion of anthropological climate change they know how to participate to prove otherwise.

    For the rest of us arguing about the science is just noise. What you believe is immaterial. Four centuries ago, the idea of a heliocentric solar system was so controversial that the Catholic Church classified it as a heresy, and warned the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei to abandon it. Yet here we are – the earth does orbit the sun, not the other way around. That’s how science works, the process leads to the best conclusion based on the evidence. And it is an iterative process so we can keep refining the answer.

    So to me the question isn’t if the science or modelling is correct – it is the best we have at this time and it will change. (For those that need to affirm their confirmation bias two good website: and – depending on the camp you are in, great for the lay person 🙂 )

    So assume the science is correct then yes the following are good questions to explore:

    “There are at least three different areas to explore 1) what needs to be done, 2) how quickly and 3) how apocalyptic future consequences might be. Clearly all of these are related. If it was easy to fix, then decarbonization could happen rapidly and perhaps there would be no apocalyptic consequences.”

    Number three “how apocalyptic future consequences might be” is really a range. If we do nothing (current trajectory of fossil fuel use) then that is the upper range, and if we do “something” are points somewhere lower in the range. I would agree that it is problematic to project out for a number of reasons. One is the climate change is/will not be a linear change, there are tripping points on systems that will become irreversible feedback loops that will accelerate temperature/climate change rates of changes. The timing of these tripping points is slowly coming into focus, some are becoming more likely in the the near term (now to 2050) vs others that are multi generational (2050-2150/2200). As far as I can see the major projection reports do not really account for these punctuations. The economic models tend to model climate change exponentially or not at all. The IPCC report accounts for the tipping points but relies on the same economic modelling. In any case a business as usual seems to be the RCP8.5 level (8.5 watts per square meter of radiative forcing) which modern civilization has not dealt with before.

    What does that look like for human civilization. If you approach it from an economic standpoint then the work of Dr. William Nordhaus and his 2015 Nobel prize work has the answer for you. And for the lay person look no further than Bjorn Lomberg who uses a lot of Nordhaus work to lay out his vision. Using this approach you can see “nothing to worry about” is the answer. Thru no or smart policy implementation, future innovation and tremendous increases in wealth we will easily mitigate and/or adapt to a changing climate. What isn’t said is what the physical world in 2100 will look like. They do not account for externalities such as species extinction, loss of ice caps, sea level changes, loss of rain/boreal forest, and so on. There is just no economic value or good way to put value to those things. Also, or me there are other issues I find troubling with this analysis, such as only outdoor economic activity is used (not indoor or underground activities) is assumed to be affected by climate change and it is a bit too much exceptionalism for me (we are a system apart from the natural world in complete control) rather than a subsystem of the earth.

    If you approach it from a wholistic view of “Gee I like the why the earth is and we have developed our modern society in a pretty narrow climate range, we need to do something…, then the above analysis is troubling to say the least. How we decarbonize our economy is the question for me but I’m not sure I want to go down the road of trying to reverse some of the damage through engineering things like put up aerosols to block sunlight or iron in the ocean, etc.

    I fall closer to the latter camp rather than the former. But at this point it looks like we have blown past the 1.5 degree cap so maybe 2-2.5 is what we are looking at. And that is a very changed physical world to me. What and how quickly, I really struggle with that. Too many conversations end up in false dichotomies – it either this or that – when the answer could be something else.

    • Your estimate of 2-2.5 is actually pretty much spot on according to climate action tracker

      That being said, RCP 8.5 is most definitely not the business as usual scenario anymore, (put before link to bypass paywall), and 4.5 W/m2 seems more likely without intervention

      As for tipping points I’m not too convinced by many of the arguments, but given the sheer number of systems it seems like there must be some feedback cycles which kick in at higher warming, the only question is whether these are biased towards positive or negative feedbacks. From my experience as a climate scientist it seems like there is so much more focus on positive feedbacks that I would assume there are many negative feedbacks that havent been discovered yet.

      • Daniel,

        Good point. RCP 8.5 is worst case – no action taken – so “business as usual” is not the good term unless one says there is not climate change and “burn baby, burn” is your mantra 🙂

        My concern with tipping points is one of rate of change and reversibility. Once tipped do we have enough time to mitigate any rapid changes. No doubt we need to get a better feel for the negative feedback loops…

  8. Sharon has done an admirable job of explaining why it’s misguided for courts to give much deference to agency expertise, especially their conclusions about lack of scientific controversy. Expertise in forestry (i.e., tree farming) does not make foresters experts in weighing trade-offs across diverse disciplines, including: fish, wildlife, ecological/trophic connections, water quality, water quantity (peak and low flows), climate adaptation, climate mitigation carbon storage, fire hazard, interactions with natural processes, ecosystem services, direct and indirect economic effects, risk and uncertainty, Bayesian logic, short- vs long-term effects, etc.

    • Ummmm….. that is why the Forest Service has individual specialists and surveys under NEPA, with a big-wig to sign off on plans. There is also a “greater good” to consider, after NEPA requirements are satisfied. Extremists on both sides want different NEPA requirements.

  9. Expect discussions about the US Forest Service to heat up during farm bill negotiations because for some stupid reason the FS is in the US Department of Agriculture instead of in Interior where the agency belongs.

    • I had thought President Theodore Roosevelt moved FS out of Department of the Interior in 1905 to remove it from the (more) manifest corruption of that agency. I cannot readily find anything supporting that point; read in “Breaking New Ground” or “The Big Burn”? Maybe someone at Forest History Society can help out.


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