The Wrong Kind of Green
mobbsey at gn.apc.org
Fri Mar 5 18:37:52 GMT 2010
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This article concentrates on climate, but I think it goes for other types of
work too (e.g., Biffa's sponsorship of CAT, or the various "green awards"
targeted at local conservation projects).
It's a parallel story for political parties too, and their present problems
with the electorate.
To summarise, "If you sup in the pig sty, you'll smell like a pig!"
The Wrong Kind of Green
By Johann Hari
This article appeared in the March 22, 2010 edition of The Nation.
March 4, 2010
Why did America's leading environmental groups jet to Copenhagen and lobby for
policies that will lead to the faster death of the rainforests--and runaway
global warming? Why are their lobbyists on Capitol Hill dismissing the only
real solutions to climate change as "unworkable" and "unrealistic," as though
they were just another sooty tentacle of Big Coal?
At first glance, these questions will seem bizarre. Groups like Conservation
International are among the most trusted "brands" in America, pledged to
protect and defend nature. Yet as we confront the biggest ecological crisis in
human history, many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight
are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world's worst polluters--and burying
science-based environmentalism in return. Sometimes the corruption is subtle;
sometimes it is blatant. In the middle of a swirl of bogus climate scandals
trumped up by deniers, here is the real Climategate, waiting to be exposed.
I have spent the past few years reporting on how global warming is remaking
the map of the world. I have stood in half-dead villages on the coast of
Bangladesh while families point to a distant place in the rising ocean and
say, "Do you see that chimney sticking up? That's where my house was... I had
to [abandon it] six months ago." I have stood on the edges of the Arctic and
watched glaciers that have existed for millenniums crash into the sea. I have
stood on the borders of dried-out Darfur and heard refugees explain, "The
water dried up, and so we started to kill each other for what was left."
While I witnessed these early stages of ecocide, I imagined that American
green groups were on these people's side in the corridors of Capitol Hill,
trying to stop the Weather of Mass Destruction. But it is now clear that many
were on a different path--one that began in the 1980s, with a financial
Environmental groups used to be funded largely by their members and wealthy
individual supporters. They had only one goal: to prevent environmental
destruction. Their funds were small, but they played a crucial role in saving
vast tracts of wilderness and in pushing into law strict rules forbidding air
and water pollution. But Jay Hair--president of the National Wildlife
Federation from 1981 to 1995--was dissatisfied. He identified a huge new source
of revenue: the worst polluters.
Hair found that the big oil and gas companies were happy to give money to
conservation groups. Yes, they were destroying many of the world's pristine
places. Yes, by the late 1980s it had become clear that they were dramatically
destabilizing the climate--the very basis of life itself. But for Hair, that
didn't make them the enemy; he said they sincerely wanted to right their
wrongs and pay to preserve the environment. He began to suck millions from
them, and in return his organization and others, like The Nature Conservancy
(TNC), gave them awards for "environmental stewardship."
Companies like Shell and British Petroleum (BP) were delighted. They saw it as
valuable "reputation insurance": every time they were criticized for their
massive emissions of warming gases, or for being involved in the killing of
dissidents who wanted oil funds to go to the local population, or an oil spill
that had caused irreparable damage, they wheeled out their shiny green awards,
purchased with "charitable" donations, to ward off the prospect of government
regulation. At first, this behavior scandalized the environmental community.
Hair was vehemently condemned as a sellout and a charlatan. But slowly, the
other groups saw themselves shrink while the corporate-fattened groups
swelled--so they, too, started to take the checks.
Christine MacDonald, an idealistic young environmentalist, discovered how
deeply this cash had transformed these institutions when she started to work
for Conservation International in 2006. She told me, "About a week or two
after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organization's
media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project
they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that
the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the
most polluting plant in the whole country.... But nobody in that meeting, or
anywhere else in the organization, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo.
You weren't supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were 'helping' us,
and that was it."
She soon began to see--as she explains in her whistleblowing book Green Inc.--
how this behavior has pervaded almost all the mainstream green organizations.
They take money, and in turn they offer praise, even when the money comes from
the companies causing environmental devastation. To take just one example,
when it was revealed that many of IKEA's dining room sets were made from trees
ripped from endangered forests, the World Wildlife Fund leapt to the company's
defense, saying--wrongly--that IKEA "can never guarantee" this won't happen.
Is it a coincidence that WWF is a "marketing partner" with IKEA, and takes
cash from the company?
Likewise, the Sierra Club was approached in 2008 by the makers of Clorox
bleach, who said that if the Club endorsed their new range of "green"
household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The Club's
Corporate Accountability Committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of
interest--but took it anyway. Executive director Carl Pope defended the move
in an e-mail to members, in which he claimed that the organization had carried
out a serious analysis of the cleaners to see if they were "truly superior."
But it hadn't. The Club's Toxics Committee co-chair, Jessica Frohman, said,
"We never approved the product line." Beyond asking a few questions, the
committee had done nothing to confirm that the product line was greener than
its competitors' or good for the environment in any way.
The green groups defend their behavior by saying they are improving the
behavior of the corporations. But as these stories show, the pressure often
flows the other way: the addiction to corporate cash has changed the green
groups at their core. As MacDonald says, "Not only do the largest conservation
groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes;
they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that
It has taken two decades for this corrupting relationship to become the norm
among the big green organizations. Imagine this happening in any other sphere,
and it becomes clear how surreal it is. It is as though Amnesty
International's human rights reports came sponsored by a coalition of the
Burmese junta, Dick Cheney and Robert Mugabe. For environmental groups to take
funding from the very people who are destroying the environment is
preposterous--yet it is now taken for granted.
This pattern was bad enough when it affected only a lousy household cleaning
spray, or a single rare forest. But today, the stakes are unimaginably higher.
We are living through a brief window of time in which we can still prevent
runaway global warming. We have emitted so many warming gases into the
atmosphere that the world's climate scientists say we are close to the
climate's "point of no return." Up to 2 degrees Celsius of warming, all sorts
of terrible things happen--we lose the islands of the South Pacific, we set in
train the loss of much of Florida and Bangladesh, terrible drought ravages
central Africa--but if we stop the emissions of warming gases, we at least
have a fifty-fifty chance of stabilizing the climate at this higher level. This
is already an extraordinary gamble with human safety, and many climate
scientists say we need to aim considerably lower: 1.5 degrees or less.
Beyond 2 degrees, the chances of any stabilization at the hotter level begin
to vanish, because the earth's natural processes begin to break down. The huge
amounts of methane stored in the Arctic permafrost are belched into the
atmosphere, causing more warming. The moist rainforests begin to dry out and
burn down, releasing all the carbon they store into the air, and causing more
warming. These are "tipping points": after them, we can't go back to the
climate in which civilization evolved.
So in an age of global warming, the old idea of conservation--that you
preserve one rolling patch of land, alone and inviolate--makes no sense. If
the biosphere is collapsing all around you, you can't ring-fence one lush
stretch of greenery and protect it: it too will die.
You would expect the American conservation organizations to be joining the
great activist upsurge demanding we stick to a safe level of carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere: 350 parts per million (ppm), according to professor and NASA
climatologist James Hansen. And--in public, to their members--they often are
supportive. On its website the Sierra Club says, "If the level stays higher
than 350 ppm for a prolonged period of time (it's already at 390.18 ppm) it
will spell disaster for humanity as we know it."
But behind closed doors, it sings from a different song-sheet. Kieran Suckling,
executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in Arizona, which
refuses funding from polluters, has seen this from the inside. He told me,
"There is a gigantic political schizophrenia here. The Sierra Club will send
out e-mails to its membership saying we have to get to 350 parts per million
and the science requires it. But in reality they fight against any sort of
emission cuts that would get us anywhere near that goal."
For example, in 2009 the EPA moved to regulate greenhouse gases under the
Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to ensure that the levels of
pollutants in the air are "compatible with human safety"--a change the Sierra
Club supported. But the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the EPA to
take this commitment seriously and do what the climate science says really is
"compatible with human safety": restore us to 350 ppm. Suckling explains, "I
was amazed to discover the Sierra Club opposed us bitterly. They said it
should not be done. In fact, they said that if we filed a lawsuit to make EPA
do it, they would probably intervene on EPA's side. They threw climate science
out the window."
Indeed, the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder, ridiculed
the center's attempts to make 350 ppm a legally binding requirement. He said
it was "truly a pointless exercise" and headed to "well-deserved bureaucratic
oblivion"--and would only add feebly that "350 may be where the planet should
end up," but not by this mechanism. He was quoted in the media alongside Bush
administration officials who shared his contempt for the center's proposal.
Why would the Sierra Club oppose a measure designed to prevent environmental
collapse? The Club didn't respond to my requests for an explanation. Climate
scientists are bemused. When asked about this, Hansen said, "I find the
behavior of most environmental NGOs to be shocking.... I [do] not want to
listen to their lame excuses for their abominable behavior." It is easy to see
why groups like Conservation International, which take money from Big Oil and
Big Coal, take backward positions. Their benefactors will lose their vast
profits if we make the transition away from fossil fuels--so they fall
discreetly silent when it matters. But while the Sierra Club accepts money
from some corporations, it doesn't take cash from the very worst polluters. So
why is it, on this, the biggest issue of all, just as bad?
It seems its leaders have come to see the world through the funnel of the US
Senate and what legislation it can be immediately coaxed to pass. They say
there is no point advocating a strategy that senators will reject flat-out.
They have to be "politically realistic" and try to advocate something that
will appeal to Blue Dog Democrats.
This focus on inch-by-inch reform would normally be understandable: every
movement for change needs a reformist wing. But the existence of tipping
points--which have been overwhelmingly proven by the climate science--makes a
mockery of this baby-steps approach to global warming. If we exceed the safe
amount of warming gases in the atmosphere, then the earth will release its
massive carbon stores and we will have runaway warming. After that, any cuts
we introduce will be useless. You can't jump halfway across a chasm: you still
fall to your death. It is all or disaster.
By definition, if a bill can pass through today's corrupt Senate, then it will
not be enough to prevent catastrophic global warming. Why? Because the bulk of
the Senate--including many Democrats--is owned by Big Oil and Big Coal. They
call the shots with their campaign donations. Senators will not defy their
benefactors. So if you call only for measures the Senate could pass tomorrow,
you are in effect giving a veto over the position of the green groups to the
fossil fuel industry.
Yet the "conservation" groups in particular believe they are being hardheaded
in adhering to the "political reality" that says only cuts far short of the
climate science are possible. They don't seem to realize that in a conflict
between political reality and physical reality, physical reality will prevail.
The laws of physics are more real and permanent than any passing political
system. You can't stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, "Sorry, the swing
states don't want you to happen today. Come back in fifty years."
A classic case study of this inside-the-Beltway mentality can be found in a
blog written by David Donniger, policy director of the climate center at the
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), after the collapse of the Copenhagen
climate summit. The summit ended with no binding agreement for any country to
limit its emissions of greenhouse gases, and a disregard of the scientific
targets. Given how little time we have, this was shocking. Donniger was indeed
furious--with the people who were complaining. He decried the "howls of
disaster in European media, and rather tepid reviews in many U.S. stories." He
said people were "holding the accord to standards and expectations that no
outcome achievable at Copenhagen could reasonably have met--or even should
This last sentence is very revealing. Donniger believes it is "reasonable" to
act within the constraints of the US and global political systems, and
unreasonable to act within the constraints of the climate science. The greens,
he suggests, are wrong to say their standards should have been met at this
meeting; the deal is "not weak." After fifteen climate summits, after twenty
years of increasingly desperate scientific warnings about warming, with the
tipping points drawing ever closer, he says the world's leaders shouldn't be
on a faster track and that the European and American media should stop
whining. Remember, this isn't an oil company exec talking; this is a senior
figure at one of the leading environmental groups.
There is a different way for green groups to behave. If the existing political
system is so corrupt that it can't maintain basic human safety, they should be
encouraging their members to take direct action to break the Big Oil deadlock.
This is precisely what has happened in Britain--and it has worked. Direct-
action protesters have physically blocked coal trains and new airport runways
for the past five years--and as a result, airport runway projects that looked
certain are falling by the wayside, and politicians have become very nervous
about authorizing any new coal power plants [see Maria Margaronis, "The UK's
Climate Rebels," December 7, 2009]. The more mainstream British climate groups
are not reluctant to condemn the Labour government's environmental failings in
the strongest possible language. Compare the success of this direct
confrontation with the utter failure of the US groups' work-within-the-system
approach. As James Hansen has pointed out, the British model offers real hope
rather than false hope. There are flickers of it already--there is an inspiring
grassroots movement against coal power plants in the United States, supported
by the Sierra Club--but it needs to be supercharged.
By pretending the broken system can work--and will work, in just a moment,
after just one more Democratic win, or another, or another--the big green
groups are preventing the appropriate response from concerned citizens, which
is fury at the system itself. They are offering placebos to calm us down when
they should be conducting and amplifying our anger at this betrayal of our
safety by our politicians. The US climate bills are long-term plans: they lock
us into a woefully inadequate schedule of carbon cuts all the way to 2050. So
when green groups cheer them on, they are giving their approval to a path to
destruction--and calling it progress.
Even within the constraints of the existing system, their approach makes for
poor political tactics. As Suckling puts it, "They have an incredibly naïve
political posture. Every time the Dems come out with a bill, no matter how
appallingly short of the scientific requirements it is, they cheer it and say
it's great. So the politicians have zero reason to strengthen that bill. If
you've already announced that you've been captured, then they don't need to
give you anything. Compare that to how the Chamber of Commerce or the fossil
fuel corporations behave. They stake out a position on the far right, and they
demand the center move their way. It works for them. They act like real
activists, while the supposed activists stand at the back of the room and
cheer at whatever bone is thrown their way."
The green groups have become "the mouthpiece of the Democratic Party,
regardless of how pathetic the party's position is," Suckling says in despair.
"They have no bottom line, no interest in scientifically defensible greenhouse
gas emission limitations and no willingness to pressure the White House or
It will seem incredible at first, but this is--in fact--too generous. At
Copenhagen, some of the US conservation groups demanded a course of action
that will lead to environmental disaster--and financial benefits for themselves.
It is a story buried in details and acronyms, but the stakes are the future of
When the rich countries say they are going to cut their emissions, it sounds
to anyone listening as if they are going to ensure that there are fewer coal
stations and many more renewable energy stations at home. So when Obama says
there will be a 3 percent cut by 2020--a tenth of what the science requires--
you assume the United States will emit 3 percent fewer warming gases. But
that's not how it works. Instead, they are saying they will trawl across the
world to find the cheapest place to cut emissions, and pay for it to happen
Today, the chopping down of the world's forests is causing 12 percent of all
emissions of greenhouse gases, because trees store carbon dioxide. So the rich
governments say that if they pay to stop some of that, they can claim it as
part of their cuts. A program called REDD--Reducing Emissions from
Deforestation and Forest Degradation--has been set up to do just that. In
theory, it sounds fine. The atmosphere doesn't care where the fall in emissions
comes from, as long as it happens in time to stop runaway warming. A ton of
carbon in Brazil enters the atmosphere just as surely as a ton in Texas.
If this argument sounds deceptively simple, that's because it is deceptive. In
practice, the REDD program is filled with holes large enough to toss a planet
To understand the trouble with REDD, you have to look at the place touted as a
model of how the system is supposed to work. Thirteen years ago in Bolivia, a
coalition of The Nature Conservancy and three big-time corporate polluters--
BP, Pacificorp and American Electric Power (AEP)--set up a protected forest in
Bolivia called the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project. They took 3.9 million
acres of tropical forest and said they would clear out the logging companies
and ensure that the forest remained standing. They claimed this plan would
keep 55 million tons of CO2 locked out of the air--which would, in time,
justify their pumping an extra 55 million tons into the air from their coal
and oil operations. AEP's internal documents boasted: "The Bolivian
project...could save AEP billions of dollars in pollution controls."
Greenpeace sent an investigative team to see how it had turned out. The group
found, in a report released last year, that some of the logging companies had
simply picked up their machinery and moved to the next rainforest over. An
employee for San Martin, one of the biggest logging companies in the area,
bragged that nobody had ever asked if they had stopped. This is known as
"leakage": one area is protected from logging, but the logging leaks a few
miles away and continues just the same.
In fact, one major logging organization took the money it was paid by the
project to quit and used it to cut down another part of the forest. The
project had to admit it had saved 5.8 million tons or less--a tenth of the
amount it had originally claimed. Greenpeace says even this is a huge
overestimate. It's a Potemkin forest for the polluters.
When you claim an offset and it doesn't work, the climate is screwed twice
over--first because the same amount of forest has been cut down after all, and
second because a huge amount of additional warming gases has been pumped into
the atmosphere on the assumption that the gases will be locked away by the
now-dead trees. So the offset hasn't prevented emissions--it's doubled them.
And as global warming increases, even the small patches of rainforest that
have technically been preserved are doomed. Why? Rainforests have a very
delicate humid ecosystem, and their moisture smothers any fire that breaks out,
but with 2 degrees of warming, they begin to dry out--and burn down.
Climatologist Wolfgang Cramer says we "risk losing the entire Amazon" if
global warming reaches 4 degrees.
And the news gets worse. Carbon dioxide pumped out of a coal power station
stays in the atmosphere for millenniums--so to genuinely "offset" it, you have
to guarantee that a forest will stand for the same amount of time. This would
be like Julius Caesar in 44 BC making commitments about what Barack Obama will
do today--and what some unimaginable world leader will do in 6010. In
practice, we can't even guarantee that the forests will still be standing in
fifty years, given the very serious risk of runaway warming.
You would expect the major conservation groups to be railing against this
absurd system and demanding a serious alternative built on real science. But
on Capitol Hill and at Copenhagen, these groups have been some of the most
passionate defenders of carbon offsetting. They say that, in "political
reality," this is the only way to raise the cash for the rainforests, so we
will have to work with it. But this is a strange kind of compromise--since it
doesn't actually work.
In fact, some of the big groups lobbied to make the protections weaker, in a
way that will cause the rainforests to die faster. To understand why, you have
to grasp a distinction that may sound technical at first but is crucial. When
you are paying to stop deforestation, there are different ways of measuring
whether you are succeeding. You can take one small "subnational" area--like
the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project--and save that. Or you can look at an
entire country, and try to save a reasonable proportion of its forests.
National targets are much better, because the leakage is much lower. With
national targets, it's much harder for a logging company simply to move a few
miles up the road and carry on: the move from Brazil to Congo or Indonesia is
much heftier, and fewer loggers will make it.
Simon Lewis, a forestry expert at Leeds University, says, "There is no
question that national targets are much more effective at preventing leakage
and saving forest than subnational targets."
Yet several groups--like TNC and Conservation International--have lobbied for
subnational targets to be at the core of REDD and the US climate bills. Thanks
in part to their efforts, this has become official US government policy, and is
at the heart of the Waxman-Markey bill. The groups issued a joint statement
with some of the worst polluters--AEP, Duke Energy, the El Paso Corporation--
saying they would call for subnational targets now, while vaguely aspiring to
national targets at some point down the line. They want to preserve small
patches (for a short while), not a whole nation's rainforest.
An insider who is employed by a leading green group and has seen firsthand how
this works explained the groups' motivation: "It's because they will generate
a lot of revenue this way. If there are national targets, the money runs
through national governments. If there are subnational targets, the money runs
through the people who control those forests--and that means TNC, Conservation
International and the rest. Suddenly, these forests they run become assets,
and they are worth billions in a carbon market as offsets. So they have a
vested financial interest in offsetting and in subnational targets--even though
they are much more environmentally damaging than the alternatives. They know
it. It's shocking."
What are they doing to ensure that this policy happens--and the money flows
their way? Another source, from a green group that refuses corporate cash,
describes what she has witnessed behind closed doors. "In their lobbying, they
always talk up the need for subnational projects and offsetting at every turn
and say they're great. They don't mention national targets or the problems
with offsetting at all. They also push it through their corporate partners, who
have an army of lobbyists, [which are] far bigger than any environmental
group. They promote their own interests as a group, not the interests of the
environment." They have been caught, he says, "REDD-handed, too many times."
TNC and Conservation International admit they argue for subnational
accounting, but they claim this is merely a "steppingstone" to national
targets. Becky Chacko, director of climate policy at Conservation
International, tells me, "Our only interest is to keep forests standing. We
don't [take this position] because it generates revenue for us. We don't think
it's an evil position to say money has to flow in order to keep forests
standing, and these market mechanisms can contribute the money for that."
Yet when I ask her to explain how Conservation International justifies the
conceptual holes in the entire system of offsetting, her answers become
halting. She says the "issues of leakage and permanence" have been "resolved."
But she will not say how. How can you guarantee a forest will stand for
millenniums, to offset carbon emissions that warm the planet for millenniums?
"We factor that risk into our calculations," she says mysteriously. She will
concede that national accounting is "more rigorous" and says Conservation
International supports achieving it "eventually."
There is a broad rumble of anger across the grassroots environmental movement
at this position. "At Copenhagen, I couldn't believe what I was seeing," says
Kevin Koenig of Amazon Watch, an organization that sides with indigenous
peoples in the Amazon basin to preserve their land. "These groups are
positioning themselves to be the middlemen in a carbon market. They are
helping to set up, in effect, a global system of carbon laundering...that will
give the impression of action, but no substance. You have to ask--are these
conservation groups at all? They look much more like industry front groups to
So it has come to this. After decades of slowly creeping corporate corruption,
some of the biggest environmental groups have remade themselves in the image
of their corporate backers: they are putting profit before planet. They are
supporting a system they know will lead to ecocide, because more revenue will
run through their accounts, for a while, as the collapse occurs. At
Copenhagen, their behavior was so shocking that Lumumba Di-Aping, the lead
negotiator for the G-77 bloc of the world's rainforest-rich but cash-poor
countries, compared them to the CIA at the height of the cold war, sabotaging
How do we retrieve a real environmental movement, in the very short time we
have left? Charles Komanoff, who worked as a consultant for the Natural
Resources Defense Council for thirty years, says, "We're close to a civil war
in the environmental movement. For too long, all the oxygen in the room has
been sucked out by this beast of these insider groups, who achieve almost
nothing.... We need to create new organizations that represent the
fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals."
Some of the failing green groups can be reformed from within. The Sierra Club
is a democratic organization, with the leadership appointed by its members.
There are signs that members are beginning to put the organization right after
the missteps of the past few years. Carl Pope is being replaced by Mike Brune,
formerly of the Rainforest Action Network--a group much more aligned with the
radical demands of the climate science. But other organizations--like
Conservation International and TNC--seem incapable of internal reform and
simply need to be shunned. They are not part of the environmental movement:
they are polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism,
leaving it weaker and depleted.
Already, shining alternatives are starting to rise up across America. In just
a year, the brilliant 350.org has formed a huge network of enthusiastic
activists who are demanding our politicians heed the real scientific advice--
not the parody of it offered by the impostors. They have to displace the
corrupt conservationists as the voice of American environmentalism, fast.
This will be a difficult and ugly fight, when we need all our energy to take on
the forces of ecocide. But these conservation groups increasingly resemble the
forces of ecocide draped in a green cloak. If we don't build a real,
unwavering environmental movement soon, we had better get used to a new
sound--of trees crashing down and an ocean rising, followed by the muffled,
private applause of America's "conservationists."
"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burroughs, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')
Paul's book, "Energy Beyond Oil", is out now!
For details see http://www.fraw.org.uk/ebo/
Read my message board, "Ecolonomics", at:
Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN, England
tel./fax (+44/0)1295 261864
email - mobbsey at gn.apc.org
website - http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/index.shtml
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