In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Alexander Gazmararian, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, and Dustin Tingley, a professor at Harvard University. They discuss how a national transition to a clean energy system may affect communities with economies that historically have depended on fossil fuel production; the moral, economic, and political reasons for the US government to oversee a energy transition in these communities; and how a bottom-up approach to policy could help facilitate the transition.
Listen to the Podcast
- The energy transition has implications for communities and policymakers: “When a major industry—think about coal mining—leaves a community, there’s a real scarring effect on that community. They lose funds to pay for public school education, to pay for roads, to pay for emergency response. On top of this, this [clean] energy transition is not going to happen automatically; it’s going to require government intervention. So, there is a responsibility to help those who are impacted because of the policies that are put into place to accelerate this transition.” —Alexander Gazmararian (4:41)
- The credibility of governments with citizens is key, but difficult to maintain: “When governments make promises, saying they’re going to invest in a community, or they’re going to support workforce development or help some disruptions that are happening in industries, governments face a … credibility problem. That credibility problem is due to the fact that it’s really hard to make promises about what they’re going to do in the future, because, when the future arrives, maybe things have changed.” —Dustin Tingley (8:06)
- Community outreach and engagement can broaden support for a clean energy transition: “If people feel that the energy transition is something that’s imposed upon them without their consultation, that’s only going to worsen the types of partisan cultural divides that we have in this country. So, actually, by bringing in more ground-up input into this approach, it makes it more consultative and can broaden the coalition in support of some of these efforts.” —Alexander Gazmararian (15:56)
- Space for reasonable discourse exists beneath a layer of misinformation: “What might seem like irrational discourse due to misinformation is actually just a product of a small and very select group of organizations that are economically pursuing a strategy to protect their bottom line. That’s very much a rational process, even though it’s going to fry the earth. I think, underneath that, there’s a lot of very reasonable people, and once you get past that veneer of team A or B, there’s a lot to learn from each other. And I think that’s a good thing.” —Dustin Tingley (26:42)
Top of the Stack
- Uncertain Futures: How to Unlock the Climate Impasse by Alexander F. Gazmararian and Dustin Tingley
- Can Federal Efforts Help Build Economic Resilience in New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Communities? by Daniel Raimi and Zachary Whitlock
- The Fight to Save the Town by Michelle Wilde Anderson
- How We Survive podcast by Marketplace
- “White Gold” episode of the How We Survive podcast
- Heatmap News
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Alexander Gazmararian, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, and Dustin Tingley, professor of government at Harvard University, about their new book, Uncertain Futures: How to Unlock the Climate Impasse.
Alex and Dustin have given lots of thought to how policy can support the communities that might be negatively affected by a shift away from fossil fuels. In this conversation, they'll describe why policy is needed, how policy can be designed effectively, and why a bottom-up approach can empower local stakeholders and bring forward innovative solutions. We'll also talk about the challenges and the tricky politics surrounding the energy transition and climate change more broadly. Stay with us.
Alex Gazmararian from Princeton, and Dustin Tingley from Harvard, welcome to Resources Radio.
Dustin Tingley: Hey, great to be here.
Alexander Gazmararian: Hi Daniel. Thanks for having us.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you guys for being here and for writing such a fascinating book that we're going to talk about. The book is called Uncertain Futures: How to Unlock the Climate Impasse.
We're going to get to the substance in just a moment, but, just like we do with all of our guests, I'd love to ask each of you how you got interested in this field. Did you become passionate about the environment at a young age? Did you get into it later in life? Have you always been an energy nerd? What's the sort of story behind your journey into this field?
Alexander Gazmararian: Thank you, Daniel. Growing up, it was hard not to be concerned about climate change. But for me, the moment that really crystallized it was policy debate, which is perhaps a little nerdy of an explanation, but when I started debate, one of the first topics we had was about the issue of whether the federal government should increase renewable energy subsidies. Just from the moment of diving into that topic, I was hooked by the politics of the issue, and I haven't looked back.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. Dustin, how about you?
Dustin Tingley: Yeah, it's interesting. It's a good question. I think I became interested in environmental issues a long time ago. I grew up on a farm for a little bit and we had animals and whatnot. So, a little bit later in life I started doing research on antibiotic resistance due to the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and that triggered a general interest in science and nature and policy and whatnot. Then, growing up in North Carolina for a while, that was an area where tobacco was beginning to wane, along with making furniture, textiles, and whatnot. So, I had an interest in the transition of economic communities and then, certainly with family in West Virginia, the connection with energy was just all too salient. I have lots of childhood memories of driving to West Virginia and having to sit for a 15-mile-long (or at least seemingly) coal train going through before you could proceed.
So, it's just really exciting to be working in this space with lots of interesting people doing great work.
Daniel Raimi: I couldn't agree more, and those are both really interesting backgrounds. You two guys are certainly some of the scholars who are working actively on this topic, and this is a topic that sometimes people refer to as “just transition.” That term's a little bit fraught, but the book really focuses on strategies to address the challenges that fossil fuel workers and the communities they live in are facing today and are likely to face even more so in energy transition.
One of the things that I've come across working on these topics is that sometimes you meet commentators—especially from the world of economics—and they might argue that we've had economic transitions before, we'll always have economic transitions, and that government intervention in a transition will probably cause more problems than it will solve. So, to get us started, why do you think there's a role for government here? And why is it important for policy to play a part in the transition?
Alexander Gazmararian: In Uncertain Futures, we take this question head on, and we talk about three different reasons for why there is a role for the government to play: moral reasons, economic reasons, and political reasons.
From the moral perspective, it's simply the right thing to do. People's lives are at stake, their livelihoods, their community's well-being, and when a major industry—think about coal mining—leaves a community, there's a real scarring effect on that community. They lose funds to pay for public school education, to pay for roads, to pay for emergency response. On top of this, this energy transition is not going to happen automatically; it's going to require government intervention. So, there is a responsibility to help those who are impacted because of the policies that are put into place to accelerate this transition.
But the economic reason, too—and something that we challenge in our book—is there's this idea that, well, people will just adjust, they'll move to places that have other jobs, and this process will be seamless. But that's not really realistic. When you talk to people on the ground, people have real attachments and ties to the communities where they grew up. Some people don't have the resources to move to other places. So, a lot of assumptions behind some economic models of labor mobility don't really work in practice, and we've seen this in response to other downturns in the past when we've seen places that got hit by international-trade deindustrialization. A lot of people stayed stuck in place. They didn't move and adjust as some of these models would suggest they would.
Then, the last reason why there needs to be a response is it's smart politics. The composition of Congress and swing states like Pennsylvania—these are areas that are politically important. They're also areas that are going to be hard hit by the energy transition. So, if we see opposition arising from these communities that are hit, that could stymie political reforms if they're not brought into the coalition.
One of the things that I've done research on and you see in response to the downturn of coal after the shale gas boom is that it was incredibly important for Trump's messaging in winning states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia by attacking the war on coal. That means you bring into office people who have radically different policies that might slow the energy transition. So, you need to pay attention to the role of government, not just for moral reasons, but also economic and political ones.
Dustin Tingley: I'd just add one small thing to that, which is that a scholar at Stanford, Michelle Anderson, has this great phrase called "suitcase solutions," which sums up some of the economics views of these more place-based development things, which is to say, "We're not going to do it. Here's the suitcase; get going." Now, I think it's a matter of coming up with, what are the smart ways to do it, right? Rather than saying, "It's impossible—pack up your suitcases and move to the city."
Daniel Raimi: I completely agree with you on that. One of the cool things about this book is that you guys are actually in these places. You are going to the bars in these communities, you're talking to people at county fairs, and you're really getting a sense of how people react to these ideas. I think that's such a valuable perspective to bring when people's heads are sometimes in the clouds on these topics.
One of the things you do pretty early on in the book is you articulate your core argument for what you're going to lay out throughout the rest of the book, and it really focuses on one word, which is credibility. This word credibility—why is it important? Why is it at the core of your argument? And yeah, just help our listeners understand what you mean by this word credibility.
Dustin Tingley: When governments make promises, saying they’re going to invest in a community, or they’re going to support workforce development or help some disruptions that are happening in industries, governments face a problem. They face a credibility problem. That credibility problem is due to the fact that it's really hard to make promises about what they're going to do in the future, because, when the future arrives, maybe things have changed, maybe the priorities of the government have changed. It could be a brand new administration, or the macroeconomic context could have changed, and maybe they can't pay for something then in the future. So, all of these things stack up into these credibility problems.
Some of you who might've taken an economics course might be familiar with credible-commitment problems or time-inconsistency problems. These all are the same thing: it's just that people will form an expectation that, maybe in the future, these promises won't be there. So, when I'm trying to be enticed by, "Hey, let's do a transition now," I'm going to be concerned. That concern is something that came up again and again in conversations we had with folks on the ground. Would they call it that term? No. They might use different language, like trust, or say, "The government's going to walk away from me; they're only here today, but they'll be gone tomorrow." These sorts of things—those are credibility problems, and governments all over the world face them.
Part of the challenge is saying, "If we're going to have this transition—this transition that's going to take a long time; this is not just a one-year-and-we're-done sort of transition—then we've got to think about how to make some of these policies durable, long lasting, and credible." When you do, as we'll talk about later, then you're going to get buy-in a way that, otherwise, you wouldn't.
Daniel Raimi: Right. We're definitely going to talk about solutions today. One follow-up question that was sort of percolating in my mind as you were speaking, Dustin, is whether this credibility issue may have gotten worse over the last several decades. I'm no expert on this topic, but my understanding is that polling consistently shows that Americans’ faith in institutions, such as government, media, and other sort of large institutions, has waned considerably over the last several decades. First of all, am I getting that right? And second of all, do you think that's a contributing factor here?
Dustin Tingley: Yeah, you're absolutely right. There's lots of great work in political science about the decline of trust in our formal political institutions, especially at the federal level, but even at the state and local level. That trust, that glue, that ability to say, "Hey, you know what? They've made a promise, they're going to sort of deliver on it”—that has been waning.
But there have also been other contributing factors, like when we have huge swings from one administration to the next or very partisan swings about who's leading the country rather than some degree of bipartisan consensus—that can contribute to it, too. So, if I'm thinking, Oh geez, what's going to happen in the next election? Is that person going to unwind all of these things? That's going to contribute to it, as well. But I don't want to overstate this—we've always had these credibility challenges. There's work dating back to the founding fathers and how the constitution was an attempt to solve, at some level, some of these things. But yeah, I think there's a sense that some of these things have gotten a lot harder.
Daniel Raimi: That's really interesting.
Let's move on now to another big point that you two make in the book, and this is the idea of bottom-up versus top-down strategies. Can you help us understand what those terms mean in the context of your analysis, and ultimately why you end up making the argument that a very bottom-up approach is needed to address these issues?
Alexander Gazmararian: Yeah, so what we mean by a top-down approach is one that starts with experts from the ivory tower or from the beltline. These people are well-intentioned and their expertise is super valuable, but oftentimes, when you're making policy that will affect communities and you're not actually situated in those communities, it can make it hard to diagnose the types of problems that people face, that workers face, that communities face, and also the ways that you could solve those problems.
So, what we argue is we need a bottom-up approach, a ground-up approach, where you take the insights from people who are going to be living through the energy transition, the people who are both in fossil fuel communities that will see the nature of their industry and local economy change, but also people in the communities that are going to be receiving all these new green investments that are going to be built out as part of the energy transition. Our policy needs to be informed by what the energy transition looks like to them on a daily basis over the next 5 years, over the next 10 years, because the effects of these policies are not going to be the same everywhere. They're going to be different. They're going to be received differently.
Now, here's one concrete example of this. There's a lot of talk about how we can create new green jobs and how they'll be good for communities. Certainly, this will be the case in many communities, but it's hard to just assume that people all want the same type of jobs. So, we spent time talking to experts in vocational schools in southwest Pennsylvania, and right now the main type of jobs that they're training for are for the oil and gas industry. If you ask them, "Why aren't you training people for wind jobs or solar jobs?" they're skeptical of those programs, not because they're skeptical of climate change, but they're skeptical if there's actual business demand in their area.
So, by actually talking to people, you realize that what they need is concrete demand for the skills that they're training people for, and then they'd be willing to go along with the energy transition. Their opposition stems not from climate denial per se, but just from the economic reality that they face. That informs a different set of policies once you start talking to people on the ground.
Dustin Tingley: There are downstream consequences for that sort of more bottom-up approach. It's about building partnerships at a certain level. These are partnerships whereby people having input on the sorts of projects, you're getting local information—information that the sort of on-high expert might not have, and you're getting that buy-in. Like, "Hey, I was part of building this." That really helps downstream. I'd also just point out that we're certainly not the only ones to say and emphasize this. Even Resources for the Future (RFF) has a great new report out about New Mexico's oil and gas communities and similar sorts of findings about the importance of that bottom-up approach and about the skepticism about the federal government, even if they're sort of open to those partnerships. But you've got to have that bottom-up buy-in; it's a crucial piece of the equation.
Daniel Raimi: I totally agree. I wonder who wrote that New Mexico report, anyway …
Alex—were you going to say something?
Alexander Gazmararian: Yeah, I just wanted to emphasize something Dustin said and connect it to an earlier point—Dustin was talking about how we have these political swings that can make promises not credible, and this ties in, too, to this top-down versus bottom-up difference. If people feel that the energy transition is something that's imposed upon them without their consultation, that's only going to worsen the types of partisan cultural divides that we have in this country. So, actually, by bringing in more ground-up input into this approach, it makes it more consultative and can broaden the coalition in support of some of these efforts.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense. It actually reflects something that I've spoken a lot about with my colleague at University of Michigan, Sarah Mills, who we've also had on the podcast. She often makes the point that, when local communities feel like wind and solar projects are being erected primarily because of federal- or state-level support rather than some kind of economic motivation or local-benefit motivation, they become very skeptical of those types of projects and become more likely to oppose them.
So, we've been talking about problems for the last few minutes. You two, in the conclusion of your book, list out a pretty comprehensive list of options for solving some of these problems. I don't think we have time to talk about all of them, but I'd love it if you could highlight maybe one or two that you think are particularly important and touch on some of the previous points that you've made in our conversation.
Dustin Tingley: As the title of the book says, part of it is how to solve the climate impasse. So, we do try to lay out some solutions and importantly provide a lot of empirical evidence for them. It's not just our saying, "Hey, we think this is a solution," but also bringing some evidence to bear. I'm going to briefly hit on two and then pass it over to Alex.
One builds on something you just said about the importance of there being local economic benefits. It was all too often for us to hear about, say, wind projects where the local communities wouldn't get any cut, to put it bluntly. And the local tax contributions would be minimal. Maybe they'd be based on property values, which then get depreciated—rather than on production, such that people have a stake in it.
Zooming out more at an institutional level—and this is something that people sort of banter on about sometimes—there's a really important role for bipartisanship here in helping solve some of these credibility challenges. There's a long literature in political science that talks about how, when bills are passed in a bipartisan way, they're much less likely to be unwound later. We're living in a world where some landmark pieces of legislation, like the Inflation Reduction Act, were not passed in a bipartisan way. That's not to say that the Inflation Reduction Act shouldn't have gotten through and whatnot, but it does raise the issue of the perception that this could be unwound in the future, because there's not that central coalition. Now, of course, bringing about bipartisanship is sort of a challenge in and of itself, but I think it's just important to just reflect on that broader institutional context.
Alex, you were going to talk about transparency.
Alexander Gazmararian: One of the solutions that we talk about in a chapter in our book is transparency and accountability. This is to address the issue that people might be skeptical about whether or not new green investments will generate local benefits for their community. We've talked to people where they've done wind projects in their communities, but they were done by outside teams of laborers who've come in.
We examined the case of Minnesota, in particular, which is actually on the forefront of developing wind, but then had a troubling trend where large outside corporations started developing projects with outside teams of laborers. One intervention that they implemented there and that we evaluate is transparency. So, the unions pushed to have the public utility commission, which oversees new projects, to have a requirement be put in place that companies report on how many local workers are employed by the new wind projects. This is actually a pretty light requirement. It's not mandating a certain level of local employment. It's simply requiring that companies just say how many workers they have are from the area. What they found was that, after this requirement was put into place, it dramatically improved local hiring in the area. From the perspective of when a company comes in and says, "We're going to create all these local benefits," well, now, people can actually hold them to account, because it's transparent what happens.
We also evaluate this where we run a series of experiments where half the people in a survey see that there's going to be a green investment without transparency, and the other half see that there will be transparency, and it makes a difference. People expect that there's going to be more local jobs when there's transparency, people think that the community will benefit more, and people become more willing to enroll in a program to train for wind jobs. So, not only does this matter for actual outcomes, like we saw in Minnesota, but it also matters for the way that people on the ground perceive these different types of projects.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's really interesting. Sometimes, in the world of climate investment, I think there is a recognition of the importance of transparency, but also some concern about the weaponization of being very transparent—the Solyndra case being the sort of classic example of one relatively modest federal investment in a clean energy project gone sour, and it's, again, relatively modest investment in the context of a much broader investment portfolio, and yet the entire portfolio gets tagged as a boondoggle because of the case of this one investment that goes wrong.
Is that a concern that you think plays into this transparency issue or is it kind of a separate one?
Dustin Tingley: I think it's a little bit separate. We're talking about things like local jobs, rather than sort of portfolio returns. I think it's different in that regard. I think there are—and we talk about it in the book—some challenges.
For example, downstream, you have transparency and say a company isn't meeting what it had committed to. This happens a lot in the context of local tax incentives to spur investment, where they're supposed to hire so many workers and then they don't. The community can say, "Hey, we're going to claw back those tax incentives, and now you owe us a bill," and then the company's like, "We're out of here!" My good friend Nate Jensen down at the University of Texas at Austin does a lot of work on this.
There is a potential downside of transparency, but I think, as a first-order principle, we're better off being in that world than trying to hide things from people and being able to highlight where there are these local economic benefits for these new industries. I think that is a good thing.
Alexander Gazmararian: If I can add to that, the energy transition is not going to take place overnight. It's not going to be solved by one project. In terms of the long-term sustainability of the energy transition, we need to have types of institutions in place that provide for transparency and provide for accountability so communities are willing to accept these new projects. Then, the next community will see from their experience that, okay, if something is not meeting what these commitments were, that is visible and they can correct for it. I think we're better off in a world with transparency than one without it.
Daniel Raimi: Hard to argue with that first principle, certainly. One other question that I wanted to ask you guys was one that kept popping up as I was reading the book in my own head, and it's about rationality. So, the arguments you make in your book are extremely rational, they're extremely thoughtful, they are empirically grounded, and they all make a lot of sense to me. But I wonder how much that matters in a world where politics is what it is and the polarization of our society is becoming seemingly worse every day. One team seems like it's for climate policy, while the other team seems like it's against climate policy.
I wonder, even if we were to be able to overcome all the challenges that fossil communities face, and even if we were able to equitably distribute the benefits of the clean energy economy, how much would that matter in a world where disinformation is a big problem and polarization is an increasingly big problem?
Dustin Tingley: Yeah, it's a great question. It's something that we definitely struggle with a lot. I think one thing to point out is that some of these sort of, "Are you on Team Climate or not?" is a little bit of a mischaracterization when you get into the weeds a little bit.
I remember several of our interviews, where the first sort of 15 to 30 minutes would be us having to dispel certain notions about my being a Harvard professor and Alex being a Princeton graduate student when talking to folks in fossil fuel communities. But once you got beyond “that team versus some other team,” you'd have people say, "Of course I know climate change is happening and that we're causing it, right? I see this all around me—I go hunting."
So I think there's that veneer of identity as a protective layer, but once you start to dig a little bit deeper, you find a lot of commonalities. It's just that nobody seems to have much of an incentive to talk about that as much anymore. Why is it this team versus that team rather than talking about communities? I think there is a big element of identity politics that is popping up here.
I'd also say that when it comes to things like misinformation—well, where's a lot of that misinformation coming from? It's coming from very rational actions by fossil fuel–incumbent industries that are spreading that misinformation. What might seem like irrational discourse due to misinformation is actually just a product of a small and very select group of organizations that are economically pursuing a strategy to protect their bottom line. That's very much a rational process, even though it's going to fry the earth. I think, underneath that, there's a lot of very reasonable people, and once you get past that veneer of team A or B, there's a lot to learn from each other. And I think that's a good thing.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I totally agree. I've had those experiences myself in energy communities where, once you get past a certain surface level, you realize the amount of commonality that you have with people with whom you might make different voting choices.
I guess what I'm getting at, though, is less about one-on-one conversations and more about voting behavior when people are going to the polls and thinking about climate as one of the issues that they're voting on and how much addressing these challenges can really sway people at the ballot box, where, ultimately, these decisions are going to be reflected in our national politics. Does that make sense?
Alexander Gazmararian: Yeah. So, I absolutely love this question, because I think it's really important to see how this translates into the political behavior of people. I'd like to make two points. The first is that, if you actually look at the political geography of where fossil fuels are, it lines up pretty well with the sides of what we see as one team being pro-climate or the other team being against it. In my reading, part of this is just an underlying economic issue where the consequence of where fossil fuels are then gets swept up into polarized politics more broadly.
But the question that you're asking, too, if we actually do take the community seriously and we do provide transitional assistance and compensation, will it make a difference? If we provide new investments, will it make a difference for who they vote for? That's a tricky question to answer, in part because, empirically, we're still in the early days of this transition, so we don't have as much data to work on. But these types of just transition agreements were successful in Spain in supporting the party that actually backed the phaseout of coal.
Now, of course, the question is, again, being generalized to the United States. We haven't had a really concerted effort at the national level to provide these types of transition packages to communities. We are increasingly seeing new investments because of the Inflation Reduction Act. I do think it would make a difference just from my speculative-prognostication perspective, but only time will tell.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, and it is going to be so interesting to watch this play out, and I'm sure you guys are going to be watching it play out in the years ahead. So, as we start to learn more and more of these lessons, I hope you'll come back on the show and talk to us about it, because I think they're really going to be crucial for the future.
But, before we close out our conversation, I'd love to ask each of you to make a recommendation of something that you've read or watched or heard lately. It can be related to the environment, only if tangentially, but just something you think is really great and you think our listeners would enjoy. So, what's at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack?
Dustin Tingley: Oh, that's great. Well, Daniel, you're doing lots of great work—so, everyone, make sure to read whatever's coming out from your shop.
There's a book that I really like called The Fight to Save the Town, and I mentioned the author at the top of the episode, Michelle Anderson. It is just a beautifully written characterization of the challenges that small towns across the United States are facing. And I think we’re in a world in which all the cities get all the attention, and I think it's a good thing for us to keep in mind as we're moving forward. Not too much about the environment—lots of other things—but it's just beautifully written. The Fight To Save The Town by Michelle Anderson.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that sounds awesome. Alex, how about you?
Alexander Gazmararian: I've got two things. One is not actually something written, but a podcast, and it's called How We Survive. It's a podcast from Planet Money. What I love about this is that it examines solutions to the climate crisis in a way that's both technical but also easily accessible. So, I would highly recommend that.
The other, if you haven't seen it, is called Heatmap, which is this new great news outlet that's doing reporting on the implementation and effects of the Inflation Reduction Act and just more generally about how climate change is going to shape different aspects of our lives. I think they're doing some of the greatest climate reporting out there. I'd highly recommend checking out Heatmap.
Daniel Raimi: Fantastic. Two great recommendations; I'm familiar with both of them. The first season of How We Survive focuses on lithium, if I am remembering correctly, and there's a series of fascinating interviews and stories around a proposed lithium mine called Thacker Pass that has all sorts of twists and turns. Am I getting that right, Alex?
Alexander Gazmararian: Yes. And that's part of what we're hoping to look at, too, is just ground-up approaches to climate change that require these stories—listening to people who will be affected, whether that's building new green energy projects or whether that's lithium mining that's going to happen. These are stories that are important to hear.
Daniel Raimi: Totally. Well, Alex Gazmararian, Dustin Tingley, authors of Uncertain Futures, thank you so much for writing the book. Thank you for coming on the podcast. Thank you for doing all the work that you're doing. It's been a pleasure talking about it with you today.
Alexander Gazmararian: Thank you, Daniel.
Dustin Tingley: Our pleasure. Thank you.
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