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« Creating distance | Main | The sci-journalist as naif »
Sunday
May032015

Tamsin on climate sensitivity, lukewarmers and what we risk

As a pearl in the dunghill of the Guardian's climate change coverage, Tamsin Edward's wise article today is going to take quite a lot of beating. It attempts to sideline the namecallers, pointing to the areas of agreement and sensible disagreement in the climate debate, particularly over climate sensitivity, and ends on these very pertinent questions.

But whether we are in denial, lukewarm or concerned about global warming, the question really boils down to how we view uncertainty. If you agree with mainstream scientists, what would you be willing to do to reduce the predicted risks of substantial warming? And if you’re a lukewarmer, confident the Earth is not very sensitive, what would be at risk if you were wrong?

For a mainstream scientist, are you confident enough in your computer simulations to argue that they support the need for the shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today - clean water and energy for developing countries are obvious candidates - and towards the problems of the next century?

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Reader Comments (134)

Bishop Hill

I think your last paragraph is a strawman. Does anyone really argue for "shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today"? I don't think so.

It's more a case of considering the long view as well as dealing with today's urgent problems of poverty, sanitation etc.

May 3, 2015 at 9:35 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

Tasmin forgets to mention the largest and loudest group in the climate debate, the scientists and politicians who advocate shutting down capitalism to deal with projections from climate models.

May 3, 2015 at 9:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Evans

After all Richard isn't an economist, so he shall be forgiven!

Bish, the last paragraph ought to be:

"and towards the problems they are expecting for the next century, in full knowledge of how all scientific expectations for today made a century ago look in hindsight naive at best, and grossly uninformed if not a complete disaster had they been heeded"

May 3, 2015 at 9:50 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Richard

Nobody argues for it, but that is what happens. Resources are limited. If we spend on climate mitigation we are not spending on other things. We indeed should consider the long and the short view and form a view of what the priorities are. Greens, with their low discount rates conclude that the priority is the long term and so spending on the problems of the here and now are secondary.

May 3, 2015 at 9:51 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Vast amounts of resources have been shifted away from dealing with today's problems to dealing with a false prediction of future man-made global warming. There is no evidence that CO2 causes warming and there is evidence that warming causes increased CO2. So-called mainstream climate scientists will, I hope, one day be called to account for the climate change scam - amongst them the Met Office alarmists. They have been, and continue to be, responsible for poverty, disease and death, which could be avoided if huge resources (trillions) weren't being diverted to funding the scam and 'solutions' to it - such as renewable energy, bio-fuels, shutting down coal-fired power stations, etc etc etc.

May 3, 2015 at 9:55 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Betts

Are you blind? It's what is happening. You cannot augment electricity bills 100%, increase energy prices, close power stations, drive up transport costs without taking money from other important areas, perhaps MORE important areas of the economy and the environment. You like many AGW supporters seem to think that the sceptics don't care about this things but we do but are care comes with a certain amount of pragmatism.

You appear incredibly naïve at times. Is it real?

May 3, 2015 at 10:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

Stephen

Calm down

May 3, 2015 at 10:08 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

[O/T. Please can we keep the thread to Tamsin's article and the questions it raises]

May 3, 2015 at 10:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

I have read the full article in the Observer ( of all publications) and it makes a deal of sense to me, especially with regard to alleviating world poverty . Hope it is game changer. With regard to the Greens, most political parties gain from exposure, not so in their case as they stagnate following the inane utterings of a certain antipodean numpty.

May 3, 2015 at 10:29 AM | Unregistered Commentertrefjon

Looking at Tamsin's article:

I know no-one who practices "climate denial". I don't even know what "climate denial" is.
Count me among the following:"There are still people who are unconvinced that carbon dioxide has any greenhouse warming effect". Where is the evidence for this greenhouse warming effect - except in my greenhouse? Show me the evidence and convince me.
Where is the evidence that "the world is warming" that lukewarmers are supposed to accept?
What is the risk that warming will create? How does it compare with the risk of cooling? Which is better?
"And that’s because the Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide is still an open question". It sure is, so why are Governments wasting trillions instead of spending it on useful things?
Where is this "heat going into the ocean".
"But whether we are in denial, lukewarm or concerned about global warming". So she does call people deniers.
Who are "mainstream scientists"? Are they those funded by Governments to produce the statements politicians and bureaucrats want to hear? Are they independent scientists called deniers?

May 3, 2015 at 10:39 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

[comment removed when I realised the Bish had removed Martin's for being O/T]

May 3, 2015 at 10:41 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

'But whether we are in denial'

I cannot be rascit no matter what I say or my views because I have black friends ,

Sorry but to start with a stupid insult , which has been designed to close down even the possibility of debate by linking CAGW sceptics to those who deny the Holocaust has a real event . Means you simply not interested in any form of rational review , your merely out to reinforce your prejudiced and confirm your membership of a the 'in group'

And as ever with Tamsin the extreme side of CAGW , for which CIF offers more than enough evidenced, is taken has acceptable. But the I sure they have friends who are sceptics so that is OK!

May 3, 2015 at 10:48 AM | Unregistered Commenterknr

With the greatest of respect, Bish, I fail to see how my censored comment is O/T.
Tamsin asks:- "If you agree with mainstream scientists, what would you be willing to do to reduce the predicted risks of substantial warming?"
You ask:- "are you confident enough in your computer simulations to argue that they support the need for the shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today?"
Richard Betts (a 'mainstream scientist' - apparently) pops up to ask:-
"Does anyone really argue for "shifting of resources...?"
I point out that Betts' recent claim (about Cyclone Pam's impact on Vanuatu) as printed in the Grauniad and suggesting that "the human contribution to sea level rise over the past 100 years was well documented" is itself an argument for "shifting of resources" away from stuff that works and towards clearly doesn't work (wind turbines, burning American wood chip and all the rest).
If this response is 'off topic' then so was your comment.
Professor Betts is obviously supremely confident in computerised confabulations because the only conceivable 'documentation' of human contribution to sea level rise is computer models "all the way down". Even the IPCC isn't as confident (or as brazen).
If he was to make the obvious case for improved cyclone warning, sea defences, proper shelter, better communications (and better governance) in the South Pacific, then we could all agree. But, unfortunately, Professor Betts seems to be content to follow Alan Rusbridger who was happy to use Cyclone Pam as an argument for his absurd 'divestment' campaign.
Note, please, this isn't off topic, it directly responds to Tamsin's question!

May 3, 2015 at 10:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Bish

In my experience, the exact opposite happens to what you are concerned about.

A fair bit of international development, such as improved access to drinking water and so on, gets justified by the claim that climate change is already affecting the poor in Africa, the argument apparently being that their lives are being made even harder by AGW - presumably this is to try to install a sense of guilt to motive the aid. This is despite the fact that attribution of drought, famine etc to anthropogenic effects is less clear-cut than is often implied. So actually, concern over AGW appears to be helping international development, not hindering it.

BTW thanks for asking Stephen Richards to calm down. He really does not do the image of sceptics any favours by getting all irate - Tamsin has written a very thoughtful article, which I agree with, and it would be far better if we could discuss it sensibly.

May 3, 2015 at 10:54 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

I would suggest to Tamsin that all those who insist that there is Nothing natural about current climate situations, are the true 'deniers.'

May 3, 2015 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter (ClimateOtter on Twitter)

Question to Richard Betts~ Does that fresh water come to those people for free, or are they required to give up hopes, dreams and freedoms in other areas in order to get it?

May 3, 2015 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter (ClimateOtter on Twitter)

Martin

Answering interview questions from a Guardian journalist does not imply support for their political agenda.

The basis for the statement you highlight (which was not a direct quote, but paraphrasing my answer) is here, page 17 bullet point 5:

It is very likely that there is a substantial anthropogenic contribution to the global mean sea level rise since the 1970s. This is based on the high confidence in an anthropogenic influence on the two largest contributions to sea level rise, that is thermal expansion and glacier mass loss.

The statement only addresses the question of whether AGW contributed to the cyclone. I said we don't know about direct contributions to tropical storms (see the above link Table 1) but that when a cyclone occurs and causes coastal flooding, the effects may be greater because the background sea level has already risen.

None of this says anything about where resources should be prioritised, it's just answering a scientific question.

I can't help feeling that you damage your own cause by claiming that scientists support policy you are opposed to, when in fact they've not commented on it at all.

May 3, 2015 at 11:02 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

"What would be at risk if you were wrong" = (threat+ fear +precautionary principle) × rhetoric

Climate science has an excellent track record of threat, fear, precautionary principle and rhetoric, and has ALWAYS been wrong.

What has climate science ever risked, by being wrong?

May 3, 2015 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

A climate scientist suggesting that there may be a benefit from 'climate change'?
(Clean water for Africans).
Tortuous logic, but that will be a first, then!

May 3, 2015 at 11:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Richard

The effect you describe doesn't seem to be helping those who have been denied access to fossil fuels.

May 3, 2015 at 11:04 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Are any credible scientists predicting 'substantial' temperature increases?

May 3, 2015 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

Would I be right in thinking that not all climate sensitivity values extracted from the past are at the high end? Doesn't it depend whih era is used? Tamsin suggests that there is a split between reconstructions using real data and proxy data.

May 3, 2015 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Otter

What an odd question! I don't suggest anybody gives up anything. Personally I think everyone in the world is entitled to the safety and privilege that we are lucky enough to enjoy in the UK.

May 3, 2015 at 11:06 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

" This is despite the fact that attribution of drought, famine etc to anthropogenic effects is less clear-cut than is often implied. So actually, concern over AGW appears to be helping international development, not hindering it."

A point to consider. If by anthropogenic effects you mean omitting to build reservoirs, over extraction of water, war, omitting to provide affordable electricity to those who have none..........

May 3, 2015 at 11:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Wilkinson

" Does anyone really argue for "shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today"?

The greens do this all the time. Lomborg argues that the allocation of resources to climate change mitigation should be assessed alongside the other problems facing the world. His many vocal opponents claim that climate change is the world's most important problem and should receive a correspondingly higher allocation of resources.

May 3, 2015 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterJust Saying

Richard
Thanks for another copy of the unimpeachably scientific IPCC Summary for Policymakers and their "very likely" assessment.
I note you claim that this doesn't say "anything about where resources should be prioritised" and suggest that:-

"I can't help feeling that you damage your own cause by claiming that scientists support policy you are opposed to, when in fact they've not commented on it at all."

Seriously?

May 3, 2015 at 11:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Unfortunately, financial resources for international development are being diverted for the purpose of climate mitigation in some of the poorest countries in Asia and Africa.

May 3, 2015 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrederick Colbourne

The new Asia bank has been created because the west will not fund. Or put huge sustainability strings attached for infrastructure project.. ie lots of western pressure to not fund coal power stations..

So I think Richard is wrong

May 3, 2015 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Just Saying

You're confusing "climate scientists" with "greens". They are not the same, although there may be some overlap. The first group is looking at whether there is a problem, the second has political opinions on one particular response (among many which are possible).

The Bish does this too, by implication, and personally I find it quite unhelpful to constructive debate.

The point about Tamsin's excellent article is that there is more common ground than a lot of people realise, and we should try to build on that.

May 3, 2015 at 11:25 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

Barry

Check DFID - they talk about climate change a lot.

Anyway, been nice chatting but I'm afraid I have things to do now….. see you later

May 3, 2015 at 11:27 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

It is very likely that there is a substantial anthropogenic contribution to the global mean sea level rise since the 1970s. This is based on the high confidence in an anthropogenic influence on the two largest contributions to sea level rise, that is thermal expansion and glacier mass loss.
-- Richard Betts
"High confidence" based on what? Is the mean sea level rise since the 1970s any greater than for the previous 100 years (to take a round figure)? Given that current temperatures are no higher than during the MWP on what do you base the argument that thermal expansion and glacier mass loss is relevant rather than simply the misfortune that Pam happened to be a severe cyclone that hit Vanuatu head-on?
Katrina was only a Cat3; the damage she did was caused by a combination of circumstances of which her severity was the least relevant. Ditto for Sandy since she was barely Cat1 when she hit New York. Both of these events have been used by activists to argue precisely what you are arguing here , namely that there is a high probability that anthropogenic global warming is causing more severe storm damage. The facts (as opposed to the carefully crafted arguments) are against you.

May 3, 2015 at 11:30 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

The 'what if we’re wrong' question.

Climate scepticism isn’t one strand, it’s cumulative. It might start with a view on climate sensitivity to CO2 but it rests upon much more. The truly poor quality of the science and a determination to keep it that way; the scary biases and politics of the biggest proponents; the lack of effective solutions and the willingness of some to throw money at the issue just because it’s there; that we keep pointing these things out and the way it goes in one ear and out the other as if there was nothing to impede the flow…

Dr Betts, you may not like that you are in bed with the greens but it doesn't stop it being true. You might not have invited them in but once they got all snuggled up to your field, nobody has tried to kick them out. Greens may have been an easy conquest but they're a real turn off to anyone sane.

May 3, 2015 at 11:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

I have very low confidence, in climate science's High Levels of Confidence.

Climate Science defined their own threshholds of confidence, and rely on each other's, to boost their own certainties.

If nothing else, could Climate Science have the honesty to review previous predictions of doom and gloom, and not make any more dire predictions, until their predictive skill is evidenced based, rather than based on the ability to grab headlines and column inches?

You can "talk up" the economy, but not the climate.

May 3, 2015 at 11:40 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

I'm sure everyone on here (even Professor Betts) is well aware that actual observations in the South Pacific do not suggest that the sea level is rising very much at all, indeed, many of the islands are now measurably larger than they were 30 years ago.
Exceptions are when they have gone in for reef blasting or have killed all the parrot fish.
But perhaps the latter is what he (and the "Summary for Policymakers" thermoggedonist activists) were thinking of as an "anthropogenic contribution" when waving their shrouds?

May 3, 2015 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

I think your last paragraph is a strawman. Does anyone really argue for "shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today"? I don't think so.

It's more a case of considering the long view as well as dealing with today's urgent problems of poverty, sanitation etc.
May 3, 2015 at 9:35 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

I think the US govt ban on providing aid to African power generation projects using fossil fuel counts as an example.

May 3, 2015 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterBig Oil

These are typical nonsensical arguments by the alarmists. There is a risk of thermageddon so we have to do something!

The silly precautionary principle. However, they never extend this to more likely scenarios e.g. asteriods, meteorites, disease (look how many people died of the flu in 1919?), etc, etc.

Strange how something with such uncertainty and poor modelling is treated as being so dangerous to the exclusion of things more likely.

May 3, 2015 at 11:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharmingQuark

It's no wonder Richard Betts agrees with "Tamsin's excellent article", since like all climate alarmists, he is amply rewarded by the politicians with taxpayers' money to stick to the alarmism at all costs. Never mind the old-fashioned concept of integrity.

May 3, 2015 at 12:08 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Bishop Hill

I think your last paragraph is a strawman. Does anyone really argue for "shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today"? I don't think so.

It's more a case of considering the long view as well as dealing with today's urgent problems of poverty, sanitation etc.

May 3, 2015 at 9:35 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

You cannot both have your cake and eat it, the worlds Govt debt is ballooning as the private debt mountain of 2008 is transferred to Govt balance sheets. At some point Govt spending is going to implode and the cake shrink making the situation even worse.

May 3, 2015 at 12:09 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Tanisn askes about the risks that one would take as a lukewarmer. On the surface a reasonable question but it has a hidden assumption - that the risks are the same for everyone. They are not. In Rwanda such electricity as there is is too expensive and life-expectancy is around 50 years. A Rwandan policymaker should see things differently to one in Denmark. The risks are different in Rwanda and Denmark. So how can you factor that in? BTW here is a link http://www.christianaid.org.uk/images/low-carbon-africa-Rwanda.pdf. Lots of detail though the implicit expectation that the poor natives are going to sign up to climate change is shocking. Well, maybe not shocking, Christian missionaries 120 years ago were much the same.

May 3, 2015 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Mott

From the articles photo caption: "A researcher examines a small section of an ice core, cut from the Langjokull ice cap in Iceland. Studying ice cores allows scientists to determine climatic conditions hundreds of thousands of years ago."
By itself this is incorrect & certainly misleading! From my trusty 1925 pocket OED, to "determine" means to "Ascertain with precision". May I suggest the article is bad merely from the misleading & deceptive use of language!!! Scientists do not "know" climate conditions of the past with any "precision", only an inkling of what climatic conditions were like. Whilst I do not suggest Tamsin wrote that caption, she certainly leant her wholehearted support to it, it would appear! That is unless they have discovered time travel in the meantime.

May 3, 2015 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Richard Betts
'You're confusing "climate scientists" with "greens". '

Actual I would suggest that often it is climate 'scientists ' who are mistaking the job they should be doing for running marketing and pushing policy for the Greens .
While other climate 'scientists ' have played the three wise monkeys over the poor science and worst behaviour of these people . Their inaction , other than wondering how they can get on the gravy train has, along with actual actions of some climate 'scientists ' has created both the perception and reality "climate scientists" does equal "greens". '

If you fail to clear the stables out sooner or latter you end up to your knees in shit . Perhaps its time to get a shovel?

May 3, 2015 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterknr

Breath of Fresh Air, that's a good point. All of our current 'generous' or 'wise' spending on climate change, here or abroad is done with brrowed money. Money we can only pay back by making those who borrow from us pay interest payments. We're borrowing our money mostly from those countries making profit from fossil fuels. It's beyond hillarious really.

May 3, 2015 at 12:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Tamsin:

- and towards the problems of the next century?
Pity she didn't add: "whatever they may be - because we really have no idea".

May 3, 2015 at 12:57 PM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

The Bretton Woods development agenda is easily captured by fashionable ideologic interests - human rights, population control, environmental, climate etc. The WB/IMF then dictates 'governance changes' as preconditions for loans. From the banks' perspective this seems perfectly rational: governance is as important as finance, or perhaps even more so. Otherwise the money is just being poured down drains. This carrot-and-stick paternalism may have worked in the past but it opens up a money and goodwill gap.

China's just filling the gap.

The official reason that was fronted in October justifying the establishment of AIIB was to allegedly fill an estimated $8 trillion gap for development financing in Asian countries left behind by the current global financial apparatus of the IMF and World Bank.

...

But for many African countries that are permanently in the queues for those loans, they have always decried the 'strings attached' to the financing, with WB and IMF overseers demanding that applicants first undertake certain conditions/reforms before being funded.

Currently Africa has a deficit of US$93 billion annually, required for infrastructural financing. That means African countries urgently need an alternative to the likes of World Bank and the AIIB comes at a perfect time.

Ideally, this should be a good thing, and even the World Bank has said so in recent months; so why the bitter US resistance?

Well, China's foreign policy towards Africa is defined by non-interference in domestic affairs and mutual respect for nations as equal partners'; Chinese aid to African countries is string-free, something that has always been criticized by western human rights activists.

By controlling the flow of money/aid, the USA had effectively become the World's 'democratic governance referee'. Countries seen to be incompliant (sic) would be switched off from the development support financing until they met the 'standards' imposed by Washington.

From: http://allafrica.com/stories/201504201125.html

May 3, 2015 at 1:01 PM | Registered Commentershub

Richard see Shub's comment

May 3, 2015 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

'By controlling the flow of money/aid, the USA had effectively become the World's 'democratic governance referee'. Countries seen to be incompliant (sic) would be switched off from the development support financing until they met the 'standards' imposed by Washington.' - from Shub's post.

Well, Richard Betts, that sounds EXACTLY like what I was talking about above. Care to reconsider my question?

May 3, 2015 at 1:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterOtter (ClimateOtter on Twitter)

Betts doesn't get economics. He doesn't know the meaning of a low discount rate . he's even got all the rights to not know it, as it's not his job. We're just wasting our time and he's defensive and nothing else.

May 3, 2015 at 2:27 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Richard Betts
What is Fighting Climate Change/Global warming a favourite phrase amongst researchers looking for grants and all politicians of the major parties other than arguing for shifting of resources?

Sorry for late reply to your first post I've been busy fighting the climate as it is today.

May 3, 2015 at 2:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Richard Betts, one example of the "shifting of resources away from dealing with the problems of today" is the Met Office using taxpayer's money to pay a salary to a "head of climate impacts", yet providing poor quality weather forecasts.

May 3, 2015 at 2:47 PM | Unregistered Commenterjolly farmer

But whether we are in denial, lukewarm or concerned about global warming, the question really boils down to how we view uncertainty. If you agree with mainstream scientists, what would you be willing to do to reduce the predicted risks of substantial warming? And if you’re a lukewarmer, confident the Earth is not very sensitive, what would be at risk if you were wrong?

Here Tamsin should admit that this is 'ideology' or politics -- the precautionary principle, reformulated -- not straightforward risk analysis.

It follows that if you take a view of 'nature' which is fragile, exists in 'balance', and provides for human society, any interruption to the imagined Order of the world will be catastrophic -- a contemporary, secular reading of the The Fall.

If on the other hand you take the view that human society is (or can be) more dependent on itself than dependent on natural processes, which don't exist in quite such a perilous state as has been imagined, the perturbations caused by human society are of lesser consequence.

I can agree with a 'mainstream scientist' that his predictions (such as they are) are plausible without committing to the idea that substantial warming creates uniquely challenging risks. Conversely, the green view used to hold (i.e. Greens used to be frank about it) that tiny perturbations can precipitate huge changes in the natural environment. One can be wrong about low climate sensitivity, but still be able to face the societal and technical challenges this would imply, even if that meant, 500 years hence, abandoning London to the sea (or rescuing it through some form of engineering). After all, human life thrives across a vast range of environmental conditions.

There is the question of the sensitivity of climate to CO2, and there is the question of society's sensitivity to climate. They should not be conflated. Conflating them is to presuppose the green view of nature in balance, and the perfect form of social organisation reflecting that balance.

If the notion of risk is still important, Tamsin's question to the lukewarmer and mainstream scientist can be turned inside out. What are the risks of holding with the view that society is dependent on 'balance' with natural processes? And what are the risks of believing that human society is largely self-dependent. Added to these risk calculations are moral and political questions -- is a society that models itself on 'nature' better than one that models itself on its own measure? I don't believe Tamsin's questions -- nor any implications of climate science -- make any sense until those questions have been answered. That's not to say that even the radically human-centric view of the debate wouldn't choose some form of mitigation, but it does suggest that mitigation at all costs, and in the political form of that the agenda currently takes would likely be off the cards, so to speak, and would be seen for the deeply regressive tendency that it is.

May 3, 2015 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

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