Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 351 | Octubre 2010



Climate Change: Who’s in the Dock?

The world’s climate began changing in the 20th century, but for a long time nobody saw it and nobody believed it. Now, in this century, we’re both seeing it and feeling it. Who’s responsible? Who privatized fresh water, turning it into a commodity? Who used the seas and oceans as a giant rubbish dump? Who poisoned our atmosphere and wounded the ozone layer? All these things have played their part in climate change, the planet’s greatest environmental problem, one that will determine its future and that of the whole of humanity.

Ramón Fernández Durán

By the second half of the 20th century, the environmental repercussions of global capitalism were no longer limited to the land mass, but rather leapt definitively from land to the seas and oceans, which cover nearly three-quarters of the earth’s surface. This largely affected the hydrological cycle, especially the circulation of fresh water in contact with the geosphere: rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands, glaciers…

Why are a billion people
not getting water?

Fresh water makes up less than 3% of the total water in the hydrosphere, but it’s the part subjected to greatest demand and pressure, especially the third that isn’t frozen in glaciers and the polar ice caps. Human activity, and more specifically the demands of the urban-agro-industrial system, requi¬sitions more than half the liquid fresh water in the world, with an enormously unequal consumption that is closely tied to income levels. These days more than a billion people have no direct access to one of life’s basic resources even though human populations have traditionally settled in places where direct access to water was possible and the desert regions with no surface water—at least a third of the world’s land mass—are virtually uninhabited.

Today fresh water has gone from being a relatively abundant and free resource in regions that are not desert but do have a highly unequal geographical distribution, to being a progressively scarce and ever more merchandized and contaminated resource. The reason for this is over-exploitation and degradation, above all because the half the world’s fresh water used by today’s global urban-agro-industrial system is usually polluted on its return to the hydrological cycle, which further degrades it and makes access to it more difficult.

The tremendous leap in the world’s water consumption in the 20th century did not come about because the planet’s population quadrupled in that century, nor is it even due to direct human consumption. It was caused by the inexorable rising demand of the global urban-agro-industrial system and an increasingly unequal distribution of income and water consumption.

The world’s water consumption increased twenty-fold during the 20th century but this exponential multiplication, two and a half times greater than the increase in the world’s population, resulted from both the intensification of industrial processes, especially agro-industry, and growing luxury consumption by urban-metropolitan populations, particularly the wealthiest, who live in suburban, low-density residential zones, especially in central areas. Or in tourist complexes in peripheral countries where big companies such as Club Med guarantee the consumption of 1,400 liters per tourist, while in eastern Morocco, the local population hardly gets 15 liters per person. Furthermore, populations in the Center also “import” water from the Periphery in the form of commodities, because the fabrication of all manufactured products involve its use and abuse.

The biggest culprit is agroindustry

Agro-industry is responsible for consuming the lion’s share of the world’s fresh water and is increasingly responsible for its degradation. In the 20th century the amount of land on the planet under irrigation multiplied five times, with agro-industry the main entity responsible for this increase. It was possible due to cheap oil-generated energy, which allowed for large-scale exploitation of aquifers using massive pumping systems, especially in the second half of the century. This allowed cities to grow and even deserts to bloom in the regions where black gold was plentiful.

But the era of industrialized aquifer exploitation will probably be short-lived, except in places where water is extracted at a slower rate than it’s replaced—currently in the minority on the planet. The most extreme case would be Saudi Arabia, which even grows wheat in the desert for self-consumption and some export. It does this by consuming ancient deposits of water at an absolutely devastating rate relative to the available subterranean water resources thanks to the super-abundance of oil in its subsoil.

The same happens in Libya and other Middle Eastern petro-monarchies, whose sumptuous water consumption is totally irrational, given the region’s characteristics. In Dubai they even offer the world’s biggest indoor ski slope, a veritable folly for the environment and energy use. Faced with the rapid decline of their scarce subterranean resources, which is authentic fossil water, all these countries resort to increasingly costly desalinization techniques, wholly sustained by relentless oil consumption.

Irrigation has also been massively employed in other territories where surface water is scarce but energy cheap, such as in the US Midwest. There the decline in the enormous Ogalalla aquifer has reached dramatic proportions and is starting to put the agricultural productivity of this global grain belt in doubt. In other regions on the planet the progressive collapse of subterranean water resources is also putting at risk the continuation of an agrarian production rhythm sustained by water consumption that is both devastating and polluting.

On the eve of a huge failure

Agroindustry is also one of the main activities responsible for the growing contamination of water resources, together with urban and industrial effluents. The volume of synthetic agroindustrial chemical nutrients plus toxic herbicides and pesticides are seriously deteriorating surface and underground water. Added to this is the absence of adequate treatment of water from metropolitan-industrial complexes, especially in peripheral territories, where it’s virtually nonexistent.

Residual water purification really only occurs in the urban-metropolitan zones of the center countries. But purification is only partial, since it is very difficult and costly to eliminate certain persistent chemical components. This causes growing eutrophication and pollution in many lakes and reservoirs and is increasingly impacting interior seas and coastal areas where urban-industrial pressure and tourism exist.

The Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas are now highly polluted. To a lesser extent so are the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Yellow Sea and Japanese Sea, and of course the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, into which the Mississippi discharges all the US Midwest’s agroindustrial pollution. Furthermore these are the areas of greatest concentration for the world’s oil traffic, which contributes to even more pollution. Oil tankers are accustomed to cleaning their tanks on the high seas after unloading in port and we frequently witness accidents and wrecks of oil tankers, ships or rigs that cause real environmental disasters (Exxon Valdez, Erika, Prestige, British Petroleum…)

Agroindustry has also contributed to growing salinity in many soils and aquifers due to over-exploitation or to the sea’s intrusion in coastal areas. Worthy of special mention is the case of the Indus River basin between India and Pakistan, where the world’s most important irrigation plan has been developed, but these days is undergoing a lingering death by salinity, above all on the Pakistani side.

History’s greatest agricultural expansion is on the point of turning into the greatest failure of agroindustry and irrigation engineering. It’s conceivably not unlike what happened to the Aral Sea due to the Soviet bureaucracy’s cotton irrigation plans, which provoked an enormous environmental disaster, nearly causing the Aral’s disappearance. Today hundreds of boats lie beached on the sand there, silent witnesses to a past that evaporated after the era in which millions of “free” workers from the Gulag built seductive giant projects with forced labor.

Mega-dams that
cause mega-disasters

Irrigation mega-projects have been plentiful throughout the 20th century, a manifestation of the promise of development for countries in the South, which for the most part leave in their wake serious environmental damage. Almost all of these projects were connected with mega-dams, on many occasions built to drive industrial development through electricity generation.

One of the first and most relevant examples, although not the only one, was the enormous Aswan Dam, symbol of Nasser’s Arab nationalism. This construction, which entailed a veritable fortune and enjoyed USSR and World Bank support, ended up holding back 98% of the sediment that used to fertilize the Nile lands. Thanks to this construction, Egyptian agriculture was forced to turn to expensive chemical fertilizers and the Nile Delta began to disappear because of sediment retention. In the end the dam has silted up, like most of the world’s great dams. This catastrophe destroyed the delta’s sardine and prawn banks and caused the collapse of a wide-reaching agricultural system based on viable irrigation that had been in existence for 5,000 years.

Environmental disasters connected with huge eng¬ineering projects that seek to control rivers, some of which have been especially inflated and irrational, have multiplied all over the planet: Itaipú between Brazil and Paraguay, Narmada in India and Three Gorges in China, which is the biggest in the world and involved the disappearance of nearly 20 cities and more than 300 towns and the relocation of some two million people. Its construction engendered a total environmental disaster, activating serious landslides due to the region’s topography and making it necessary to relocate another four million people.

These mega-projects have also caused enormous social damage, with the relocation of more than 40 million people, three-quarters of them in India and China. It would seem that the bigger the State, the bigger the dam has to be: the new symbol of the power of emerging States.

Big cities swallow up
the world’s water

The global proliferation of metropolises with over a million inhabitants, more than 400 of which existed at the turn of the millennium, led to the construction of water works to guarantee a water supply, at the same channeling and in some cases diverting the rivers that crossed them, creating gigantic regional plumbing projects. By the end of the 20th century the water supply of some immense metropolises was already coming up against nature’s limits, but not before devastating many of the water resources in the surrounding areas.

The cases of Beijing and Mexico City stand out. Having already exhausted the surface and underground water from which they supplied huge areas all around, they are now proposing even more inflated mega-projects to carry on growing. Meanwhile their terrain sinks because they are cities built on wetlands that they dried out or attempted to reclaim in order to carry on growing. In Beijing’s case, the entire north China plains, where some 200 million people live in different metropolises, is now experiencing serious water supply problems. In response, they are proposing gigantic new north-south channels, running from the Yangtze River for hundreds of kilometers to supply water to the whole region.

In this decanting of water across the land surface with great costly engineering works, a large part of the water is lost, evaporating or filtering away before it gets to the end users, which include crop fields. This is causing the regression of many of the world’s deltas by altering the rivers’ normal course and flow, because their sediment remains trapped behind dams, which then silt up. Likewise it contributes to a significant loss of biodiversity by encasing the river’s flow in reinforced concrete and even forcing much of it through pipes, while at the same time lakes and marshlands are dried out so that extensive metropolises can spread unchecked.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular examples of hydraulic engineering is the case of Holland, where half its population now lives below sea level and finds itself threatened by a rise in sea level in the near future. The Dutch process started in a small way in the 19th century and reached a spectacular peak in the second half of the 20th century after the construction of the so-called Delta Plan (1953), which united the estuaries of the Rhine and Mosa rivers through a huge dyke, allowing human colonization of new terrain won from the sea and turning this country into a unique example of hydraulic technology in the world.

What made it all possible
is coming to an end

None of these mega-projects would have been feasible without cheap energy, specifically oil, and without copious water, but both water and oil appear to be coming to an end. Nor would they have been possible without a context of continual growth; financial resources from the State, international organizations and financial markets; and, as a consequence, growing indebtedness. This era of such possibilities also seems to be coming to an end.

In addition, these mega-projects have gobbled up immense sums of investment because initial budgets were hugely overrun during their execution. This benefited the great international construction companies and engineering firms and upper levels of State bureaucracies that were accustomed to participating in such benefits through corrupt practices. They were promoted unchecked for this reason, as well as for the symbolic value they had as icons of power and of course because they allowed the projection of the urban-agro-industrial modernization project.

Water has already
become “blue gold”

By the end of the 20th century water had already started to become an enormously valued resource and a market auguring important future benefits due to its growing demand, scarcity and privatization.

Maude Barlow (1999) quite rightly called water “Blue Gold.” Not for nothing did governments of many of the world’s countries proceed to merchandize water under pressure from water transnationals, gigantic global companies created in the West in the past decades in the heat of neoliberal privatization processes, with the inestimable help of the World Trade Organization and free trade agreements and support from the World Bank.

The multinationals too (Nestlé, Danone, Coca Cola, Pepsi…) are increasingly breaking into the world of bottled water at the same time as they fraudulently appropriate the sources and reserves of this precious resource. The bottled water market is expanding rapidly in many areas of the world, in view of the degradation of water quality and its growing scarcity.

Bottled water began at the end of the 1980s and today is a highly lucrative business. Not for nothing does its price tend to be more than a thousand times the cost of water that comes out of the tap, which means that bottled water already rivals oil as the commodity generating the most money. A liter of bottled water is “worth” more than a liter of petrol. The merchandizing of bottled water, actively promoted by advertising, also creates an enormous quantity of refuse and rising energy consumption thanks to the production of plastic containers and transportation to get to the public.

Filling seas with rubbish
and taming rivers is ecocide

At the end of the 20th century, at the same time the market for fresh water was relentlessly expanding, that “commodity” began to get scarce in the world, in many places very seriously, exacerbating socio-political tensions around the resource. This is the case for example, in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Simultaneously pollution and degradation of this basic resource for life was increasing, causing illness and death.

The human species’ growing use of water denies it to other species, aggravating their vulnerability. The drying out of Earth’s wetlands, which already affected 20% of them at last century’s twilight, is having a grave impact on many species, especially the migratory birds that use them as way stations. Taming the rivers and draining wetlands are among the greatest environmental damage that occurred in the 20th century together with the deterioration of water resources.

The fact that the rest of the hydrosphere—the world’s seas and oceans—are being turned into the urban-agro-industrial system’s global sewer is also having a major impact. It’s the cheapest, biggest sewer and apparently the one with the greatest capacity for keeping things hidden. But its theoretical immensity doesn’t hide the fact that this sewer is turning into a rubbish dump that’s beginning to show its darkest face in many of the world’s seas, since many marine ecosystems are at the limit of their capacity to resist. In many marine areas plastic is beginning to outnumber phytoplankton and flood the planet’s beaches, slowly degrading the definition of our planet on an intergalactic scale, as it’s not by chance we call it the Blue Planet.

Planetary climate change:
Who’s the culprit?

The atmosphere is the thin, delicate, gaseous cover some 100 km thick round the Earth that allows life on our planet. Until the start of the 20th century, its alteration by industrialization and urbanization processes was exclusively local in nature. But by the end of that century the repercussion from the urban-agro-industrial metabolism had reached global dimensions, even managing to change the climate.

No species ever had such an ability to change things. Human societies started to develop that ability with the dawn of industrialized society. But it was in the 20th century, above all in the second half and most particularly in its last decades, that the convulsion became manifest. The urban-agro-industrial system is not only a geomorphologic force but is also the main entity responsible for transforming the climate as never before in hundreds of millions of years, with consequences for all of life’s orders. This process will become more acute throughout the 21st century, but its initial stages were established in the 20th century, at the very same time we were learning about this extremely serious process underway. The fundamental cause of it has been the massive use of fossil fuels, starting with the Industrial Revolution but especially since the 20th century and on into this one.

How and when did this start?

Coal burning began to pollute the air in London in the 17th century and worsened with its increasing domestic use. Industrial manufacture also used coal to a large extent but its impact was limited to the enclaves where it was emerging. Not until the appearance of the steam engine and the start of massive coal consumption by the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization process can one talk about air pollution as a serious local problem in areas where manufacturing was getting underway or where concentrated urban populations increasingly turned to coal for cooking or heating and later on for traveling by steam train or boat.

The history of pollution followed the steps of indus¬trialization, urbanization and motorization. Nevertheless, while pollution was significant and serious in the 19th century around industrial sites, many of which were built outside cities to be close to the coal mines, it wouldn’t be a serious urban problem until the next century.

In the 19th and well into the 20th century, pollution was considered a sign of progress that didn’t need to be dealt with, particularly since those who suffered were mainly the poorest people in the industrial districts. But pollution worsened in the 20th century, became more democratic, first becoming regional and then global.

The first half of the 20th century was still considerably marked by the predominance of coal, and the growing industrial sites were increasingly located around cities because of the spread of and reduction in the cost of motorized transport, which continued to be mainly by rail. The number of cars was still quite small: less than a million in the whole world in 1900 and “only” 100 million around 1950. The problems of urban traffic were still incipient and anyway only happened in US cities, the most motorized and designed for automobile use at the time.

London, where “smog” was born

The main pollution centers were the great conglomerations in the North of the planet: mostly the industrial cities of Great Britain, France and Germany and increasingly in the east and center of the United States, the USSR and Japan, with notable industrialization strongly linked to the growing militarization and two World Wars. In the Periphery, only India and China had significant and highly polluting industrial complexes, linked mainly to textile production controlled by Western Europe, especially Great Britain.

The main domestic fuel in Northern industrial cities was coal, which intensified the population problem and democratized its impact. London, at that time the world’s foremost city, would develop into the paradigm of urban-industrial pollution, becoming famous for its “smog,” a new word coined by combining smoke with fog.

Considerable changes followed in the 1950s, with the growing eradication of coal as a domestic fuel and its substitution by gas and to a lesser extent electricity, as well as the construction of huge chimneys that cast the pollution ever higher and thus helped disperse it. This “incentive” of the social struggle in reducing pollution didn’t occur in the USSR or the countries of authentic European socialism, where acute repression and restriction of information was one of the main causes of the tremendous Soviet ecological disaster.

The runaway growth of urban traffic from the middle of the 20th century was to bring a new sort of pollution to the ever expanding cities, one that would add to the slightly tamed industrial and domestic pollution, especially from the 1970s onwards by measures referred to as “end of the pipeline” and the spread of cleaner natural gas in the central countries.

Los Angeles, automobile
capital of the world

Automobiles and buses began to inundate the metropolises of the North first and those of the entire world later, until they reached around 800 million cars by the end of the 20th century, doubling the number in existence in the 1970s. One of the first places this new pollution took by storm was Los Angeles, motor city par excellence.

An avalanche of cars combined with local circumstances in the form of a stagnant atmosphere, sun and heat caused a new phenomenon, “photochemical smog,” a sort of pollution that to a greater or lesser degree would spread to all the world’s metropolises alongside the propagation of motorized travel, being especially intense in Mexico, Santiago de Chile, Athens, Seoul, Teheran…

Civic awareness and denunciation brought about a certain change in emissions of pollutants from vehicles in the central countries, while in the peripheral countries the absence of environmental norms meant that the emission of pollutants would be significantly more widespread despite the smaller car pool.

In the second half of the 20th century pollution caused the death of some 30 million people, many of them inhabitants of peripheral mega-cities that saw the consolidation of the Global Factory at the end of the century, above all in South-East Asia. During the first half of that century wars were mainly responsible for killing young people, many of them on the battle field. In the second half pollution vented its fury on the sick, the old and children, the most vulnerable, especially in the cities.

Air pollution was becoming one of the most serious problems of the metropolises, with the intensity of its occurrence moving during the last decades of the century from the central metropolises to the periphery of the South and East. Especially worthy of mention is the enormous pollution of the Chinese metropolises, where intense urban growth is combining with a significant rise in motorization and disproportionate industrialization. Not for nothing is China the world’s factory; because of this it is also advancing at top speed towards its own ecological disaster.

We’ve damaged the ozone layer,
the shield that protects us

Relentless industrialization from the mid-20th century on also caused serious airborne environmental impact ever further afield. The West and East began to see the proliferation of so-called “acid rain,” with significant cross-border repercussions on forests, soils, lakes and cities between the US and Canada, in Northern and Central Europe, Japan, important areas in the USSR, and South Korea and China.

At the same time, proliferation of the use of CFC gases (chlorofluorocarbons) in the refrigeration industry and aerosols from the 1970s on began to alter the composition of the ozone (03) in the stratosphere. CFCs have the ability to destroy the fine ozone layer that encircles the earth by reacting with this gas and causing serious environmental and social damage.

The ozone layer screens out the sun’s ultra-violet (UV) rays and makes life on Earth possible. Its disappearance in the stratosphere allows higher levels of UV radiation to fall on the Earth’s surface, putting marine phytoplankton, plants, animals and humans at risk.

UV rays are one of the main causes of skin cancer. The speed and extent of this phenomenon, especially acute over the polar ice caps, provoked an intense worldwide socio-political debate in the 1970s and 80s and CFCs were finally banned in many countries with the signing in 1987 of the Montreal Protocol by all the world’s countries.

Nevertheless, the fact that many peripheral States have continued to produce these gases, although to a lesser extent, combined with the long life of CFCs—some 100 years—means that the disappearance of the ozone layer has only been slowed and will continue till the end of the 21st century.

Global capitalism has been
able to alter the world’s climate

The greatest environmental problem that will determine the future of the Planet and Humanity is very likely Climate Change, brought about by the urban-agro-industrial system’s metabolism. It was already clear by the end of the 20th century that global capitalism was proving capable of modifying the planetary climate, something that seemed impossible just a few decades ago.

This is about a “conquest” arduously won over the past 200 years by the main Western States, clearly led by the US, in the 20th century. The emerging States have recently taken it on as well, with China in the lead, although with big differences regarding their responsibility as culprits within their own societies.

Of course energy use isn’t the same across power structures, social classes, consumption levels and regions, and the intensity of fossil fuel energy is what mainly determines the emission of greenhouse gases. While a natural rate of these gases permits a balanced climate and the development of life, their growing artificial concentration in the atmosphere is causing the climate change taking place as it prevents the sun’s heat from escaping into space.

We’ve changed the carbon cycle too

The greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and others of a residual nature. The one that most contributes to climate change (60%) is CO2, released by the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) by the urban-agro-industrial system’s basal metabolism (industrial production, industrialized farming activity, transport, electrical energy generation, heating, refrigeration, etc.).

Furthermore, the considerable disappearance of forests since the mid 20th century has very appreciably reduced one of the main carbon sinks. The expansion of agro-industry contributes in the same way, as well as being one of the main CO2 emitting sectors.

All of this raises CO2 levels in the atmosphere by changing the carbon cycle. The seas and oceans, the other big carbon sink, are becoming increasingly saturated by this function. Saturation is also due to rising sea temperatures, another consequence of ongoing climate change, which at the same time increases acidity levels with potentially negative effects on marine life. On the eve of the new millennium the temperature had increased by more or less half a degree as a result of CO2 levels rising from a concentration of 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 360 in 2000 and 380 today.

The notorious emission of other greenhouse gases also contributes to intensifying climate change. Their potential effect is even greater than that of CO2, even though the amount of these gases in the atmosphere is much smaller and hence their global impact is thus far much less significant for having been emitted mainly in the second half of the 20th century.

The part played by methane and CFCs is more or less similar, with these two gases accounting for around a third of the total greenhouse effect. The increase of methane in the atmosphere is largely due to the increase in the global cattle herd during the 20th century and more specifically in the past 50 years. The spread of rice paddies and the explosion of rubbish dumps also contribute to methane emissions, along with the use of fossil fuels. CFC emissions were concentrated in the later decades of the 20th century. Their potential effect as greenhouse gases is the most damaging of all. Nitrous oxide (NO2) is responsible for under 10% of the total effect of greenhouse gases on a global scale and its emission corresponds in particular to the use of chemical fertilizers in agro-industry.

Today we’re incarcerated
in an atmospheric “prison”

To a great degree the 20th-century history of industrial production and fossil fuel combustion has already determined atmospheric conditions for the coming centuries.

The second half of the 20th century also saw the progressive colonization of our atmosphere, increasingly saturated with satellites that circle the Earth, put into orbit by different powers with political-economic and mainly military aims in their eagerness to dominate space. This proliferation of aerial objects is creating space rubbish that is increasingly dangerous and toxic, particularly when they reach the end of their useful lives, in addition to the existence of nuclear propulsion in many of them. This space refuse is equivalent to 100,000 land mines and bit by bit is creating a “prison” from which it could be difficult to escape at some point in the future.

We’re already facing tragedy

Climate change as a phenomenon was only incipient in the 20th century, although its existence was already being denounced in its final decades. The first global conference that warned of climate change took place in Geneva in 1979. The issue was then taken up in the Brundtland Report (“Our Common Future,” 1987). The first official report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN organization set up to deal with this issue, is dated 1990. These are the two main milestones before the Earth Summit in Río de Janeiro (1992), one of whose results was to initiate the process that would lead in 1997 to the Kyoto Protocol—which wasn’t approved until 2004 due to opposition from the US and other “developed” countries.

This document only required signatory countries to slightly “reduce” their emissions, at the same time promoting solutions based on market expansion (emissions trading, “clean development mechanisms”) as a way to short-circuit the climate change already occurring without halting the falsity or injustice of its ideas. Theses denying the reality of climate change were at their height by the end of the 20th century, propagated particularly by the oil industry, US Republican groups and the main oil extracting countries with Saudi Arabia in the lead.

The world’s climate was changing slowly but nobody “saw” it or “felt” it, at least not in any palpable way. Nevertheless, climate change created by the metabolism of global capitalism promises to be an incredibly serious problem in the 21st century, with a very serious influence on life’s basic resources, ecosystems and of course all human societies in the future.

It is already happening. Extreme droughts, torrential rains, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, increased desertification, adverse effects on ecosystems and biodiversity are all repercussions that are affecting countries in the global South more seriously, even though the causes mainly originated in the planet’s North. How will we get out of this?

Ramón Fernández Durñan, an engineer, urban planner and university professor, is a member of Ecologists in Action. This text is part 2 of a series we published first in the August issue of envío and will publish in future editions, and is the essence of his forthcoming book on the crisis of global capitalism and the foreseeable collapse of civilization.

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