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What If?

Future Scenarios: COVID-19 and Climate Change
words & photography – lena dobrowolska, teo ormond-skeaping
location – london, england

In the middle of February 2020, we were warned about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus – news which led us to start social distancing long before the UK announced a national lockdown on the 23rd of March. During this month, we saw how severely first Wuhan and then Northern Italy were being impacted by local epidemics. It became clear how likely it was that the UK was on a trajectory towards a similar scenario, given that the government had, at the time, taken few precautions to stop the virus from spreading.

To begin to imagine ways to limit the risk of ourselves, our friends and families catching the virus, we started asking a series of ‘what if’ questions. What if work requires us to travel across London? What if we need to isolate from our new incoming housemate? What if London went into lockdown like Paris? What if panic buying causes supermarket supply chains to collapse? What if our neighbour who has cancer doesn’t take the virus seriously?

The ‘what if’ technique, which comes from the scenarios thinking methodology, was something that we had learnt about whilst undertaking the Culture and Climate Change Future Scenarios networked residency between 2016 and 2017. Initiated by Professor Renata Tyszczuk and Professor Joe Smith in recognition of the importance of communicating the urgency of climate change through art and culture, the residency challenged us to become artists who were simultaneously climate change researchers. It did so by facilitating our collaboration with climate scientists, policy makers and researchers with whom we were to explore the theme of climate changed future scenarios.

As an introduction to scenarios thinking, Tyszczuk explained to us that “scenarios can be seen as rehearsal spaces for collective modes of acting on, and thinking about uncertain futures.” Our first scenarios making exercise, in collaboration with scientists, researchers and policy makers from multiple climate related disciplines, was to imagine a climatic future in relation to an object from the Scott Polar Museam’s collection – in our case an Inuit polar bear hide coat. Through such exercises, we were challenged to become aware of multiple different perspectives and how these perspectives gave rise to future scenarios that would have previously been unimaginable to us. In this way we learnt how to consider multiple possible future scenarios at once, and how to generate our own scenarios in collaboration with participants from disciplines or backgrounds very different to our own.

Throughout the course of the residency and our ensuing Future Scenarios artist film and photography project, we worked with the collaborative practices at the root of scenarios thinking to suggest palpable imaginings of both difficult and improving future scenarios – always in dialogue with the researchers and communities that we visited. During our investigation we speculated upon scenarios of climate induced migration, intensified natural disasters, sea level rise, energy futures, conflict, heat and water stress and food security. To do so we visited locations that are vulnerable to climate change such as Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Nepal and Uganda; and those which are historically responsible for climate change, but also vulnerable, such as the UK and the USA.

Through the creation of speculative documentary film and photography, which we refer to as Capitloscenery, we worked to identify glimpses of the future within the lived experiences of those that are most vulnerable to climate change and the dangers of continuing on our current ‘business as usual’ scenario trajectory. 

In doing so we wished to highlight three important things: one, how the crisis of climate change is for many not a future scenario, but a disaster that is unfolding right here, right now. Two, how the solution to the problem is already known and how this solution is being sabotaged by a number of developed nations. And three, how much can be learnt about adaptation and resilience from those nations and communities in the Global South who are already dealing with climate change on the ground. 

Having introduced us to the concept of scenarios thinking, Tyszczuk also explained to us the etymology of the term – painting a vivid development from 16th Century Italian street theatre to Hollywood screenplays to the 1950’s during The Cold War. At this point, the term was seized upon by Herman Khan, a futurist working for the Rand corporation as a military strategist on thermonuclear warfare. Khan, one of the real life inspirations for Dr Strangelove, pioneered a technique he called ‘future-now’ thinking that combined detailed analyses with imagined fictional stories, with the intention of producing reports as though they might be written by people in the future. Khan and his team of writers based their reports on difficult ‘what if’ questions, with the intention that these scenarios would provide the context and stimulate the thought process that leaders may experience during a high stress experience; one that data and facts alone could not replicate.

The name ‘scenarios’ was suggested by Khans friend, the Hollywood screenwriter Leo Rosten, as a way to ‘deglamourise’ the concept. This was important for two reasons: firstly, it allowed scenario writers to think freely about the future without worrying about the moral, economic or scientific constraints of the present. And secondly, because an adequate term was needed to frame the stories for the military leaders who would read them so that they did not discount the stories as science fiction or mistake them for definitive outcomes.

Following on from Khan’s work, the scenarios thinking methodology has since been employed by a wide range of scientific disciplines, economists and industries as a way of planning for a number of possible futures and as a way to manage uncertainties. From the 1960’s to the present day, scenario thinking has been central to climate change research and policy making. Climate scientists, researchers and laterally policy makers favoured the methodology because it allowed them to incorporate the uncertainty that surrounds the rate of warming that will occur, and the impacts that such warming will have on the Earth’s ecosystems, our cultures and economies into policy and scientific reports, thereby allowing them to plan for many eventualities.

First climate scientists, and then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), developed scenarios from data driven models to help us understand the scope of the problem – with the intention that we would then go onto mitigate climate change before it became harder to do so. These early models simulated the warming trajectories that our historic, current and expected emissions indicated for our future climate, with the first model being published in 1967. 

At the same time, work in the field of interdisciplinary academic research led to the 1972 Limits to Growth report, which presented a computer aided simulation of several different scenarios of exponential economic and population growth. Significantly, the report highlighted humanity’s need to move away from a ‘business as usual’ scenario to one that focused on sustainable development. If not, extractive practices and the constant pursuit of economic growth would cause a sudden and uncontrollable collapse of the economy, earth’s ecosystems and human population within the next 100 years. Later climate models went on to indicate how National Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emissions reductions could limit warming – aspiration goals set within the Kyoto protocol and the Paris agreement. 

The IPCC’s scenarios report, the Paris Agreement’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP), details the impacts of average global temperature rise along 6 scenario pathways, ranging from a 0.3°C to a conservative 4.8°C average global temperature rise by 2100. In addition, the report also indicates what emission reductions need to take place to stay on a given pathway. Scenario pathway RCP 1.9, which sees warming kept below the aspirational goal of 1.5°C global average temperature rise, would thereby protect the world’s most climate vulnerable nations from adverse suffering.

However, since the early 1970’s, corporations such as fossil fuel giant Royal Dutch Shell have also used scenario planning for strategic decision making. By speculating upon different scenarios of future energy use, in which demand rose and fell and crises did and did not happen, the company’s planning team were able to foresee the energy crises of 1973 and 1979 – and react accordingly to reduce losses and increase profits. Shell’s most recent scenario, ‘Sky,’ even explores how the corporation could be a part of a Paris compatible 1.5°C future. 

Recently, scenarios thinking was used to map the projected loss of life that the COVID-19 pandemic could entail at the global and national level. In the UK, the government and its scientific advisers asked ‘what if’ questions to determine the pathway to take through the pandemic. What if the UK imposes a lockdown? What if we enforce stricter social distancing measures? What if we lift the lockdown? And most importantly, what if our National Health Service is overwhelmed?

Scenarios thinking also played a central role in the UK Government’s early proposal to pursue herd immunity over quarantine. In this instance, the models that the government’s scientific advisors had created suggested that “taking it on the chin” to avoid a “pandemic cure that is worse than the disease” was a viable scenario pathway that avoided the severe economic impact of a lockdown and a hypothetical second wave potentially more deadly than the first. This was considered a pathway that would arguably allow the UK to prosper – at the cost of a massive loss of life. Thankfully, this scenario was quickly abandoned as cases started to exponentially increase and lockdown was imposed shortly after.

Although scenarios thinking is intended to anticipate forks in the road ahead, so that we may avoid potential dangers and make informed decisions about which direction to take, such thinking may also be used to create obstacles and delay or influence decision making by those with foresight. Sadly, this methodology is open to abuse from those who wish to benefit economically for as long as possible, before or during a transition or a crisis. 

Yet another more complicated aspect of scenario thinking is that, over time, decision makers have come to lean more heavily towards dehumanising scenarios derived from data driven computer generated models – thanks to a belief in their technical authority. As a result, collaboratively generated, compassionate scenarios proposed by teams of specialists from a multitude of fields that take into account what has been learnt by people on the ground, are being disregarded.

The natural human approach may be to think compassionately about our neighbours, friends and family, yet data driven models instead gauge how the economy would suffer if X number of people got sick and what number of deaths was acceptable or, worse, how profit could be derived from such things as selling masks or altering social distancing requirements from two to one metres. This trend towards data and algorithms has led our leaders to promote scenarios as the privileged knowledge of the future instead of the subjective assessments that they are. With scenarios no longer being considered as aids to prepare us for an uncertain future, we are increasingly finding that scenarios are being touted as sets of deterministic pathways, from which we must choose the least worst option – if we are indeed lucky enough to be included in the decision making process at all. In the wrong hands scenarios thinking may in fact be used to colonise the future and further suppress the voices of already marginalised indigenous and minority communities, alongside those organisations, governments and individuals that advocate for a just transition out of COVID-19 and away from fossil fuel extraction towards a carbon negative economy. 

a crisis within a crisis within a crisis, making inequality, spending cuts to social services and political inaction all the more visible

Humanity stands at a crossroads: one direction leading to ecomodernist type futures full of techno-fixes that risk the moral hazard of assuming that negative emissions will be possible; and the other direction leading to climate justice and indigenous cosmology based futures that respect the limits of earth’s ecosystems. The type of scenarios that we place our faith in and how we interpret them, as determinist pathways or cautionary tales, will significantly determine the habitability and equality of our future.

Although a COVID-19 type pandemic was not a climate exacerbated scenario that we explored in our work, it was one that many scientists had highlighted as increasingly pressing. While the pandemic was not directly caused by climate change, warming and the extractive practices that lead to it have increased the likelihood of such a scenario. With ever increasing levels of deforestation due to unsustainable agricultural practices, encroachment into forests by developers and loggers, the booming illegal wildlife trade and a rising demand for bushmeat, species of animal are making contact that have never before met in the wild – and they are doing so in the presence of humans. As a result viruses like COVID-19, Ebola, SARS and MERS have long been expected to become pandemic. 

Mirroring challenges around climate change, preventative action, vaccine development and lessons learned in the wake of Ebola and the SARS pandemics have been deemed alarmist or too expensive – with nations in the Global North reacting slowest and therefore suffering the greatest death tolls. For many in these regions, images projected by the media evoked the kind of end of the world scenario that Hollywood has conditioned us to expect the moment the pandemic broke.

Yet, as T.J. Demos notes, for many of the world’s poor who are living in the fallout of what was first colonialism, then became capitalism and has since rebranded as Neoliberal capitalism, the end of the world had already happened. For the already marginalised, whose land and culture has been taken from underneath and above them, the COVID-19 pandemic is just another form of slow violence that makes the tragedy that has become their existence worse. Their very existence remains threatened by a long list of disasters that include ecocide, climate change, racial violence, religious, sexuality or gender identity based persecution.

For many, the luxury of social distancing is not possible. Of those our work to date has introduced us to, recent events have led us to worry about friends in Bangladesh who live in densely populated slum communities; the multigenerational families of South Sudanese refugees that we worked with in Uganda who live in single room tents or huts; and those that had lost their homes in the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California who still live in cars or RV’s on the lots where their homes once stood. All are dependent on communal water sources and shared latrines, making it very hard for them to maintain social distancing in their communities. For so many, lockdown was a period of enforced starvation and confinement, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

What sort of social distance people are able to maintain and for how long, further reveals the vast inequality that has become inherent within our global society: some of us can work from home. Some of us have no homes at all. Some of us are on the verge of losing the roof over our heads due to sudden unemployment. If some don’t work, they don’t eat. We are quickly learning that COVID-19 is not the great leveller that some initially deemed it to be. Although it can infect all humans, from world leaders to slum dwellers, it does not affect us all equally. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis within a crisis within a crisis, making inequality, spending cuts to social services and political inaction all the more visible. 

While it is right to acknowledge the vulnerability of the Global South to the impacts of COVID-19, it is wrong to assume that its nations are helpless in the face of the pandemic. Vietnam, which borders China, is hailed as a pandemic success story thanks to a combination of strict quarantine and contact tracing – even though it has a population of 95 million, a weak health care system and a small budget to tackle the problem.

During our Future Scenarios residency of 2017 we were invited by Dr Saleemul Huq, a renowned Bangladeshi climate researcher, to his research centre: The International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We were invited to explore not how the nation is being impacted by climate change but, instead, how Bangladesh is in fact a climate change expert. In doing so we learnt how the narrative of vulnerability that once surrounded those nations most vulnerable to climate change has developed into a narrative of resilience and adaptation. 

During our time at ICCCAD, Dr Huq and his team explained to us how the countries that were once thought of as helpless in the face of climate change are now emerging as leaders in key areas of climate research and policy making while simultaneously manning the moral helm of climate politics. Dr Huq revealed that countries in the Global South had, in many cases, pioneered the introduction of such things as climate resilient and low carbon development pathways, nature based adaptation strategies, indigenous climate resilient agricultural practices and technologies, low cost adaptation technologies for sea level rise and river bank erosion, research into loss and damage, knowledge sharing, community based disaster preparedness, climate policy implementation at the national level, and the constitutional protection of nature. 

Perhaps most significantly, Dr Huq said, it had been the Southern nations that had called for the aspirational goal of 1.5°C and the Warsaw Mechanism On Loss and Damage to be enshrined in the Paris agreement. Unsurprisingly, the nations of the Global South are in fact closest to decarbonising their economies, even though as a group they have contributed the least to total global carbon emissions. Conversely, Dr. Huq explained, the developed nations that are principally responsible for climate change and have the greatest technological and financial resources to tackle it, seem to be stuck in a state of political apathy that is delaying any serious emission reductions. Often, they are also withholding finance for mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage from the vulnerable nations of the Global South that will be hardest hit. Perversely, some responsible nations are seemingly compounding their own enormous vulnerability to the impacts of climate change by making little progress towards adaptation at home, whilst simultaneously strategically delaying climate negotiations. 

Following our time at ICCCAD, we concluded that by foregrounding this new narrative of resilience and adaptation in our work, we could reveal how the narrative that Dr Huq shared with us opens up a dialogue about a still yet-to-be determined future. A story that rejected the fatalistic narrative about vulnerability that compounds the victimhood of those nations most vulnerable to climate change and highlighted the fact that it is still possible to advert a climate catastrophe by meeting the aspirational goal of 1.5°C – if we act now. 

Not only does the Global South offer lessons in climate leadership, but also in compassion and generosity. When, in 2016, the European Union accepted close to 363,000 refugees and migrants, Uganda – itself an LDC with a history of conflict – accepted nearly 983,000 refugees who had been displaced by conflicts in neighbouring South Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. Then, in 2017, when President Trump rolled back on the requirement for federal agencies to consider established climate science in their planning, Dr Huq wrote an open letter on behalf of Bangladesh to the American people offering both sympathy and help to adapt to climate change. 

Such gestures should encourage us to reach out and make contact with those most impacted by COVID-19 and Climate Change, to approach an understanding of how our lifestyles affect them and to learn from their generosity, compassion and lived experiences. Yet in a world enveloped in perpetual crisis and dominated by shock politics, compassion and love seem to be so easily trumped by a business as usual maxim, xenophobic rhetorics and the technological determinism of the patriarchy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and Climate Change appear to share many similarities. They are both Hyperobjects. They were both made worse by globalisation. They appear at first to effect all equally, but are soon recognised as impacting the poorest hardest. Neither obey borders. The precautionary measures that could have diminished their impact have been delayed, ignored and deemed too costly. They both require international cooperation in research, mitigation and adaptation and dramatic changes to our behaviour. But the similarities largely end there. We think, see and understand the virus in a totally different way to how we comprehend climate change. 

Where climate change requires thousands upon thousands of data sets, images and models to come close to describing it, COVID-19 can more easily be understood when we see an image of one single copy of the virus. Because we can single it out, we can more easily cast it into the role of an enemy, an other, one outside of humanity that we may freely hate. We cannot, and will not, hate climate change in the same way because that involves hating ourselves, which leads to apathy – which is counter productive. 

Once the viral assailant has been identified, war like rhetoric can be used to foster enthusiasm for defeating it. We can put a 3D generated image of it on public information posters telling us to wash our hands and maintain social distancing, we can create cartoon viruses for kids to help them understand why school has been canceled and we can project daily death tolls over the scanning electron microscope image of it. All of which help us focus our energy on flattening the curve. Yet no equivalent polar bear on thin ice, or treaty, has yet to successfully encourage us to concentrate on flattening the emissions curve or the loss and damage curve.

Where the pandemic differs again from climate change is in the understanding that it has a known point of origin, though still contested, and that blame could be placed on a single nation. Although anthropogenic climate change can be understood as starting during the industrial revolution, there is no equivalent of COVID-19’s patient zero, no carbon dioxide molecule number one; instead there was a sustained period of emission during which nearly every nation on earth contributed in some small way to an increase of carbon dioxide from 280ppm to 415ppm. While we are rightly attributing the lion’s share of responsibility for global warming to the developed nations like the US, UK and Europe who are principally responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions, we are also acknowledging by working together under the Paris agreement, that every nation must play a role to limit warming.

America’s escalating war of words with China, over what the former President Trump lauded as an attack worse than Pearl Harbour or 9/11 by a “Chinese Virus” – thereby greatly contributing to the tsunami of hate and xenophobia that the pandemic has unleashed – was only possible because there was an origin to point the finger at. While arguably we could point the finger at the UK, and more specifically to James Watts for making the steam engine so popular, it is likely that the industrial revolution would have happened anyway. However, we can and should point the finger at those who have intentionally delayed climate action for the state we now find ourselves in.

But why assume the worst? Why not treat the virus as a provocation to imagine the world otherwise? And take lockdown as an opportunity to ask questions about what a just transition out of the pandemic looks like? 

As we work to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, we know that one day it will end. That one day of the pandemic is a very tangible one day, it is a point in time that is as little as one or two years ahead, it is the carrot on that stick that gives us hope. But the one day of climate change is not near, for most of us it is beyond our lifetimes and presents little incentive for us to moderate our carbon intensive life styles. 

While the COVID-19 crisis may well be resolved soon, climate change will not; it requires sustained, far reaching preemptive policy making that many politicians are too afraid to impose for fear that it will detract from their chance of re-election. One of our world’s largest superpowers teeters on the brink between enacting lasting change or leaving a damaging legacy of fossil fuel bail outs, renewed coal extraction and further deregulation under the guise of rebuilding the post virus economy – all of which will make catastrophic global warming harder to avert. 

Unfortunately, the real time COVID-19 crisis, as opposed to the slow motion disaster of climate change, was used as an excuse by would-be autocrats to secure more power. As leaders around the world assumed emergency powers to protect public health systems, a small number of leaders unlocked powers that far exceeded any that democratic governments had assumed to fight COVID-19. Such examples of the abuse of power include: Hungary’s ‘coronavirus law,’ which gave the prime minister Viktor Orban almost unlimited powers to rule by decree with no expiry date; Cambodia’s introduction of a COVID-19 emergency law that allowed for the unlimited surveillance of private citizens; a law in Zimbabwe targeting those spreading misinformation, including criticism of the government, that came with 20 years imprisonment; and the timely implementation of lockdowns in countries such as India in which enforced stay at home orders ended nationwide rallies against the government’s marginalisation of Muslims. With social distancing laws stopping journalists and human rights activists from leaving their homes, we simply do not know the extent of these potential horrors.

In light of this, pessimists could all too easily argue for a mass giving up. If the virus doesn’t get us, and the autocrats don’t oppress us, then the climate crisis will finish us off.

As Arundhati Roy, Jeramy Lent, Saleemul Huq and Timothy Morton suggest, why not think of the “pandemic as a portal,” a dress rehearsal for the climate crisis, “an icon of what is really possible” and a chance to take the lessons learned from this finite crisis and use them to tackle another more enduring one? We might even thank the virus one day for driving us to a breaking point from which the only way forward was change.

As the crisis deepened we have seen behavioural changes, environmental improvements, market shocks and levels of state intervention to protect citizens and businesses that were previously unthinkable. The UK’s government paid 80% of the salaries of contracted workers and the self-employed, and rented hotels for the homeless. Spain promised to introduce a universal basic income and has already nationalised its private hospitals. New York State released low risk prisoners and has halted evictions.

We are learning that people have been quite prepared to dramatically change their behaviour to reduce the risk of overwhelming their nation’s health systems. This is encouraging and diminishes the argument that actions on climate change will affect civil liberties and freedoms. We experienced a huge reduction in air pollution as the economic slowdown closed factory doors, stopped unnecessary car journeys and brought to a halt fossil fuel burning public transport systems around the world. A reduction in car crashes and train derailments greatly reduced moralities in India, and less air pollution saved an estimated 77,000 lives in China. 

  1. Lone palm, Daulatkhan, Bhola Island, Bangladesh, (2017), from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)
  2. Holms Western Oil Corporation, Pump Jack Number 13, Pentland Road, Maricopa, Kern County, California,USA,(2019), from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)
  3. 109 South 35th Street, destroyed by hurricane Michael, Mexico Beach, Florida, USA, (2018), from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)
  4. Seasonal workers carrying fired bricks, brick kiln, Gabtoli, Dhaka, Bangladesh, (2017), from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)
  5. Fridays For Future School Strike Protest, Piccadilly Circus, London, UK, (2019) from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)
  6. Future Scenarios three channel artist film installation  (1h,15m), Kunst Haus Wien, Museum Hudertwasser, curator Sophie Haslinger, Vienna, Austria, (2019), from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)
  7. Future Scenarios exhibition, Kunst Haus Wien, Museum Hudertwasser, curator Sophie Haslinger, Vienna, Austria, (2019),  from Future Scenarios (2016-2021)

Consumers returned to local producers and small businesses as they tried to reduce their contact with larger numbers of people and when overwhelmed supply chains left supermarket shelves empty. People realised that their work can be done from home, that meetings can be done virtually and that colleagues, friends and family around the world can feel as close as those next door. Solutions were crowdsourced as health workers on the front line shared their knowledge of dealing with past emergencies and applied it to COVID-19. We have once again been reminded that, more often than not, disaster brings out the best in people as mutual aid groups formed to support those who were most vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic and communities found themselves pulling together. Very importantly, we saw that major investors such as Warren Buffett dumped carbon intensive stocks, in his case airlines, and that others are starting to see the benefit of shorting fossil fuel stocks as demand plummets. As a result, renewables are increasingly looking like safer long term investments.

As the previously unthinkable has suddenly become a reality in a very short period of time, our collective efforts and new ways of living have undoubtedly rubbed the lamp just enough to release the genie – and it’s increasingly hard to imagine going back. No longer will politicians be able to tell their constituents that such things are not possible due to cost; they are, if only the political will to do so is there. To avoid returning to business as usual, the very thing that caused the public health crisis and the climate emergency in the first place, we need to move towards a ‘new normal.’ A better normal. Where policies are aimed at helping the most vulnerable citizens of every country as well as reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting earth’s ecosystems and more than human inhabitants . 

It is possible for this crisis to catalyse the same leap forward that The Great Depression did in the 1930’s when it led to the New Deal, if our collective reaction is to reject neoliberal norms and bring in a Green New Deal to transition to a post-pandemic economy that simultaneously tackles mass unemployment and climate change. More than anything, COVID-19 may teach us that it is time to stop following the technocratic totem of ‘The Science’ insomuch as neoliberal behavioural economist’s new name for data heavy models and algorithms, and time to start listening to real scientists, healthcare professionals, and community workers and those Southern and indigenous communities on the ground.

Hopefully, the virus may teach us to stop trusting our futures to statistic or behaviour driven models that have been determined by inhumane machine learning technologies, instead returning to the collaborative practices and humanistic disciplines that lie at the root of scenarios. These can help us extend empathy to the cryosphere, the biosphere and the vulnerable through the imagining of a compassionate and habitable future for all. We will soon see what lasting lessons have been learnt from COVID-19; with everything considered, we can only hope that they offer some hopeful scenarios for our collective future.

Read more about the Future Scenarios project at

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