Climate Justice (Getting Ready for Change)

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Indigenous Power: A New Energy Economy

Graphic: Camille LaCapa. Courtesy of Honor the Earth

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most dominant country in the world, yet it can’t keep the lights on in New York City, nor can it provide power in “liberated” Baghdad. Centralized power production based on fossil fuel and nuclear resources has served to centralize political power, to disconnect communities from responsibility and control over energy, and to create a vast wasteful system. We need to recover democracy. And one key element is democratizing power production.

Let’s face it, we are energy junkies. The U.S. is the largest energy market in the world, and we consume one third of the world’s energy resources with five percent of the population. We are undeniably addicted—our economy is based on the burning of dinosaurs and on wasteful production systems. In other words, oil. Ninety-seven percent of the total world oil consumption has been in the past 70 years.

We even slather oil-based fertilizers and herbicides on our food crops. We have allowed our addictions to overtake our common sense and a good portion of our decency. We live in a country with the largest disparity between rich and poor of any industrialized country in the world. And, we live where economic power is clearly translated into political power.

Energy Addiction is Changing the Climate
America’s fossil fuel habit and the government’s response plunge us further into serious challenges that grow worse with every year. In the last 200 years, we have caused the amount of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere to grow by almost one-third—more than in the last 20 million years.
Indigenous Peoples, Pacific Islanders, and local land-based communities are the first to experience the devastating consequences of climate change due to its effects on hunting, fishing, and gathering rights; the loss of land and food security; respiratory illnesses and infectious diseases; and economic and cultural displacement. Climate change is clearly a human rights issue.

Global Climate Change: The Evidence

  • According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 2005 was one of the hottest years in more than a century.
  • Greenland ice is melting faster than anyone thought possible. Fifty-three cubic miles entered the sea in 2005, compared to 22 cubic miles in 1996. A cubic mile of water is about five times the amount Los Angeles uses in a year.
  • Those who live in the Arctic are experiencing shorter winters that disrupt the lifecycles of plants and animals that they depend on.

Dramatic fluctuations in water levels and warmer temperatures of lake waters have affected fish and insect populations, resulting in fish kills from growing dead zones in lakes, and severe infestations of disease-spreading insects, like mosquitoes. Ironically, even as native communities are being hit hard by climate change, some of the largest carbon dioxide emitters on the continent are located within Native communities.[1] A 2000 Environmental Protection Agency report revealed that two power plants and their coal mines in San Juan County, New Mexico released 13 million pounds of chemical toxins in the Four Corners area in one year alone.[2]

Evidence of human induced climate change is abundant. The earth’s snow cover has decreased by 10 percent since the late 1960s; and since the 1990s, the thickness of arctic sea ice from late summer to early autumn has decreased by 40 percent. Ice melt has made sea levels rise—0.2 meters overall—resulting in an explosion of water- and airborne diseases. Moreover, insects that devour trees are now able to reproduce prolifically. At least 4.2 million acres of the Alaskan forest are dying off from the spruce beetle infestation, an insect that, due to the mild weather, is now able to “clutch” (i.e. lay eggs) twice during a year and has laid to waste a good portion of the spruce forests. New vector-borne diseases are also on the rise. The West Nile Virus is thriving and spreading along the East Coast and the Great Plains.The potential impacts of climate change on our communities are far reaching. From the loss of habitat, to a rise in diseases, to the devastation of large areas of land, climate change is literally transforming our ways of living. For example, according to Robert Gough, attorney for the Rosebud Sioux tribe, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that global warming will likely cause collapses of some fisheries and expansions of others. This impact will involve territorial shifts of fishery stock and may bring about changes in present species. The level of impact will vary widely, depending upon the nature and complexity of each ecosystem.”[3]

Native communities depend on marine fisheries for subsistence use and for commercial and tourist industries. Many of these fisheries rely on spawning grounds located in the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard, and along the Gulf Coast. Tribal communities are consequently concerned about the combined and simultaneous effect of climate change and over-fishing. Climate changes can exacerbate the effects of over-fishing at a time of inherent instability in world fisheries.

Indigenous Peoples on a worldwide scale have been quite concerned about these impacts. The Native Peoples/Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop (l998) and the Second Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (2000), led to international dialogue on the issue. The Indigenous representatives were unanimous in their recommendations contained in the Hague Declaration. The series of procedural and substantive recommendations include:

Full participation in negotiations related to climate change, and decision-making with relevance to Indigenous Peoples;

Restoration of habitat previously devastated by national and international development; n Creation of a fund to deal with climate impacts in accordance with traditional cultures and lifestyles;

Increased application of renewable energy technologies in the developed and developing worlds. The Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (Intertribal COUP) is taking the lead and plans to challenge the Bush administration on global climate change. By not signing the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. created a huge deficit in the international goal for decreased carbon emissions. “Tribal wind energy production could entirely enable the U.S. to reach the levels expected in the Kyoto Accords, and tribes could just do it,” suggests Gough. Intertribal COUP is soon launching a “March Forth!” initiative aimed at matching cities seeking partners in green house gas reduction with renewable energy producing tribes.

Energy: Problems and Solutions
“Energy is the biggest business in the world; there just isn’t any other industry that begins to compare,”[5] says Lee Raymond, Chairman of the Board and CEO of ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the world.[6] Energy is, indeed, an immense business. Turnover in the world’s energy markets is at a whopping $l.7 trillion a year. This number will only continue to grow as more and more countries and communities become electrified (one-third of the world’s population is currently without electricity).

The potential for renewable energy in Indian country is now well understood. In the summer of 2000, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the release of a new report on Indian Energy Consumption and Renewable Energy Development Potential on Indian lands. The study noted that “sixty-one Indian reservations appear to have renewable resources that might be developed for power generation at a cost of less than two cents per kilowatt-hours above regional wholesale prices.”[7] In other words, cleaner renewable energy resources might prove more lucrative for Indian Country than the non-renewable sources that presently dominate tribal economies.

Tribes have historically played a large role in the “big business” of U.S. energy production. In fact, even a conservative estimate will find at least 10 percent of the U.S. energy market and its reserves dependant on tribal resources. Therefore, even if the U.S. energy market is valued at $280 billion (a highly conservative estimate), then at least $28 billion should be going to tribes. Yet, in 2000, tribes received only $750 million for their resources—far below the market value. By the same token, however, the U.S. energy industry has played a major role within tribal relations. Although tribes have generally received a pittance in return for their resources, this still represents a significant portion of tribal treasuries. For instance, the Navajo Nation received the majority of its annual $100 million operating budget from royalties, leases, and taxes generated from coal, oil, and gas in the year 2000. Those revenues provided for basic infrastructure and the salaries of the entire tribal government employees and officials.[8] Indian Country relies on energy revenues for many of its basic needs. This has often come at the expense of the health of the land and the people, but there is potential for these revenues to continue and in a way that is healthier for tribal communities.

Photo: Solarpanelinstallation Courtesy: Native American Photovoltaics

Wind Solutions
Wind energy is now the fastest-growing renewable energy source across the country. There was 35 percent more wind generation capacity in 1998 than in 1997, or enough to power more than one million households in the U.S. alone.9 Attorney Gough says it all, when he says, “We can either give you coal, or we can give you wind.”10 We stand on the cusp of something important. It is our choice to determine the legacy we leave for future generations.
Alternative energy represents an incredible social and political reconstruction opportunity and one that has the potential for peace, justice, equity, and some recovery of our national dignity. Renewable energy makes economic sense.
The European Union estimates that there will be 2.77 jobs in wind for every megawatt produced, 7.24 jobs per megawatt in solar, and 5.67 jobs per megawatt in geothermal. Or, in short, l000 megawatts of alternative energy power averages 6000 jobs, or 60 times more high paying jobs than in fossil fuels and nuclear power. It is our choice. We can either create jobs and economic stability in Indian Country, or we can continue to line the pockets of utilities and energy companies.
Some of us believe that instead of nuclear waste going to Yucca Mountain, there should be solar panels. And we know that the wind blows endlessly on Pine Ridge, where we believe that, in the poorest county in the country, there should be wind turbines. We must be about democracy and about justice. We must put the power back into the hands of the people where it truly belongs.

Excerpted from Indigenous Peoples Power and Politics, A renewable Future for the Seventh Generation, an Honor the Earth Publication. Order copies online at:

1 Of the top 11 emitters of air pollution in New Mexico, most are on or near the reservation: Four Corners Power Plant (Arizona Public Service Company), San Juan Generating Station, BHP San Juan Coal Mine, BHP Navajo Coal Mine, Giant Refining Ciniza Refinery, and San Juan Refining Company.
2 Norrell, Brenda 2000. "Four Corners Power Plant Fouling Navajo Air," Indian Country Today, June 14 , 2000.
3 Gough, Robert 1999. "Stress on Stress: Global Warming and Aquatic Resource Depletion." Native Americas. 16, nos. 3 & 4 (1999): 46-48.
4 Gough, Robert 2002. Personal Interview with Winona LaDuke, February 5, 2002.
5 The Economist, February 10 , 2001.
6 “The World's 100 Largest Public Companies," The Wall Street Journal, 22 September 22, 2003.
7 Norrell, Brenda 2000. "Four Corners Power Plant Fouling Navajo Air," Indian Country Today, June 14 , 2000.
8 Gough, Robert 2002. Interview, February 5, 2002.
10 American Wind Energy Association,

Winona La Duke is a member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg. She is the program director of Honor the Earth and the founding director of White Earth Land Recovery Project. Her books include All Our Relations and Recovering the Sacred.

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Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits
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"Cleaner renewable energy resources might prove more lucrative for Indian Country than the non-renewable sources that presently dominate tribal economies."

Toward a Just Climate Policy

Khalil Bendib cartoon © 2006

By J.Andrew Hoerner

Climate change plays favorites. Not by malice or calculation, but without question. This is the lesson of hurricane Katrina. Global warming makes the entire climate system more energetic. As the planet heats up, you see more extreme events of every kind—rainstorms, droughts, hurricanes and tornados, forest fires, and heat waves of deadly intensity. Warming is forecast to cause massive species loss and the death of traditional lifestyles that are closely allied with nature, from the Arctic tundra to the tropics. The 10 hottest years in history have all occurred in the last decade and a half. Global warming and the greenhouse gases that cause it are already outside the bounds of the last 600,000 years of earth history, and the further we move into uncharted territory, the more likely we are to see sudden, drastic, and unpredictable changes in the basic climate pattern of the world.And who pays the greatest price for this climatic destruction? Blacks, Latinos, low-income households, and indigenous peoples. They are communities who cannot afford air conditioning to combat heat waves or property insurance to cover against hurricane and tornado damage; people who spend the most on basic necessities and who have no access to health care when tropical diseases become more widespread. While it’s true that “working people everywhere” are increasingly being affected by the same problems, the reality is that specific communities are still the first and the hardest to be hit.
Can We Stop Global Warming?

Yes, but it will not be easy. Global warming is an unavoidable by-product of burning all fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas; and unlike past pollutants, these cannot be filtered out, except at tremendous cost. To halt global warming, we would have to stop using fossil fuels completely for the next 40 years. This will require a complete redesign of our entire energy system and the replacement of fossil fuels with plant biomass and power from the sun, wind, and tides.
With sufficient effort, we should be able to halt further warming and begin a return to the pre-warming state within the lifetime of those now being born. Global warming will continue to worsen under any realistic policy scenario during our lifetimes. The climate system is huge, and has immense inertia. It took more than a century for a serious warming trend to start and it will take at least another century for it to stop. Famines and other disasters caused by climate change can only be ameliorated with the help of strong international organizations, backed by genuinely committed industrial nations.

When Race Matters in Global Warming
Research shows that Blacks in the U.S., while at greater risk from the problems of global warming, are less responsible for it than Whites. The emission of greenhouse gases from the consumption of all goods is 20 percent lower for Blacks than for non-Hispanic white households, primarily because lower average income causes lower average purchases of energy.

At the same time, Blacks at all income levels appear to spend a greater proportion of their total household budget on energy. This is especially true for households at the bottom 10 percent of the income scale, which spend 60 percent more of their budget on energy. Some evidence suggests that higher home energy use—mainly for heating—is a consequence of poor quality housing.

Latinos also spend a higher proportion of their budget on energy than non-Hispanic whites at all levels, especially at the lower end of the scale. However, home energy use for Latino households is more similar to that of whites, while motor fuel expenditure is considerably higher.

Global Warming Katrina Photo Courtesy: NOAAAll Justice is Climate Justice
We believe that all struggles for economic justice—the right to a decent education and affordable healthcare for all, the right to a living wage or better unemployment and Social Security benefits, the fight to build stronger unions and worker rights organizations—are also struggles to reduce the harmful effects of global warming. We are convinced that global warming will multiply the effects of existing injustices and the only way to avoid disaster for our communities and our nation, is through policies that reflect solidarity among all working people.

Extensive economic modeling within the U.S. has shown that policies that hurt the economy hurt the vulnerable communities first and most, while policies that help the economy also help these very communities most. This is best illustrated by trends in unemployment: Blacks closely track whites, but at about twice the amplitude, and are helped more when unemployment goes down.

What is the difference between policies that weaken the economy and those that strengthen it? Just a few key decisions.

“Polluters Pay” vs. Corporate Welfare
Ultimately, we are going to pay more for gasoline and other fossil-based fuels. Fossil energy, especially oil and gas, will be more expensive, because it is running out. And it should be more expensive, because of its harmful effects. But we do have an important choice: we can pay that higher price to ourselves, in the form of pollution costs that finance programs to save energy, manage the transition to new clean sources of power, and provide assistance to households and companies that are most affected. Or we can pay the same money to OPEC and the big energy companies.

There are basically three ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions using market incentives. Under the first two systems, fossil fuel producers are required to have a permit for each ton of carbon dioxide released into the air by their fuels. The existing system issues free permits based on how much a company has polluted in the past. Under this system, consumers pay higher fuel prices to the companies that pollute the most. The alternative to this system is to auction the permits to the polluters, so the higher fuel prices will actually have the effect of going to the government for public use. A third system is to have pollution fees or taxes, which would have nearly the same economic effect as auctioned permits.

Some environmental justice advocates believe that the real problem lies with permit trading—a view that’s confirmed by our study. Trading systems, such as RECLAIM in Los Angeles, and the offset market under the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism, have been severely corrupted and abused.

Trading permits per se does not appear to affect the economic outcome as much as the system of giving away permits to historic polluters. If the polluter is made to pay for the permit at an auction or through taxes and fees, and the funds are used wisely, the entire economy can benefit.

Energy Efficiency: The Other 20 Percent Solution
When it comes to environmentally sound economics, offsetting the energy burden goes hand-in-hand with promoting energy efficiency. Although poorer households spend a higher percentage of their income on energy, they still spend less in absolute terms. So, it is possible to fully offset the average energy burden on the bottom 40 percent of all households (through programs like the earned income tax credit) with only 20 percent of the revenues from a permit fee or tax on global warming pollution.

In addition, it is possible to fully offset the burden of a global warming pollution charge on all households by investing a small portion of the revenue on energy efficiency measures, which would have people spending less on energy, even when prices go up. A review of the literature suggests that on average, one can offset all of the additional energy costs by investing only 20 percent of the revenues in energy efficiency.

In effect, then, the average burden on low-income households is offset twice—through direct credits and through energy efficiency. The net result is a strengthening of local economies through the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars to communities that have been historically affected by environmentally irresponsible policy, with 60 percent of the revenues still left over for other public spending.

When Emissions Follow Trade, Equity Happens
In putting a climate policy in place, there is always the risk of driving energy-intensive production out of state. And since global warming pollution has the same effect, regardless of where it is generated, a state or nation with a policy can hurt its own economy without getting any environmental benefit. Environmentalists call this problem “leakage.”
One solution would be to treat the emissions as if they were following the goods. Importers would be required to pay a pollution fee or buy emissions permits, just as if the goods were produced in state, and exporters would get a rebate for permit costs or emission charges associated with the exports.

This policy, sometimes called border adjustment, is a feature of consumption taxes, like the excise and sales taxes, and is allowed under the GATT/WTO rules. It completely eliminates the incentive to move production out of state, thus saving local jobs, preserving competitiveness, and from an environmental point of view, ending “leakage.”

Next Steps: What’s to be Done?
We can safely say that low-income, non-white communities, while not primarily responsible for the pollutants that cause climate change, certainly bear the brunt of its effects. Some of the costs to these communities can be offset by revenues from pollution permit charges and pollution tariffs on imports, and investment in energy-efficient and clean energy technologies. However, to put in place some of these policies for climate justice, we would first have to spell out a comprehensive political program. The following list of obvious next steps is a start in that direction:

  • Recognize the enormous role race plays in the consequences of global warming.
  • Work with groups like the Environmental Justice and Climate Change initiative,, and also with mainstream racial and ethnic justice groups to include climate justice on their platforms.
  • Learn the 10 principles for a just U.S. climate policy:
  • Demand that all state and federal climate legislation include studies of environmental justice concerns, and that all climate plans include programs that address the special needs of vulnerable communities and are progressive in their overall impact.
  • Work for full funding for programs that promote community development through energy efficiency, like the low-income home weatherization program, and support innovative development strategies, like the Ella Baker Center’s Green Jobs Not Jails campaign.
  • Get involved with climate initiatives at the state level. If your state is among those currently developing a comprehensive climate plan with ambitious goals (California, New Mexico, and some New England states), get involved in the planning process, or at the least, demand to know how your elected officials will support the creation of such a plan.
  • Work with labor/environmental alliances like the Apollo Alliance and the Blue/Green Alliance to draw the connections between racial, workplace, and climate justice.
  • Reduce your own global warming activities by using tools like the Ecological Footprint Calculator, Ask your school or place of work about their plans for reducing global warming pollution, and support effective policies.
  • If you belong to a church, ask your church to take a public stand in support of an effective global warming policy, and send a delegation to your local elected officials to communicate that stand.


    This article is based on three detailed analyses done by Redefining Progress, one of which is an unreleased study on climate impacts on Latinos.

    You can read the other studies online: African Americans And Climate Change: An Unequal Burden, a report prepared for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation;

    Climate Change In California: Health, Economic and Equity Impacts, a report prepared for the California Air Resources Board.

    Andrew Hoerner is director of research for Redefining Progress (


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     Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |     Credits

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    Youth Organize for Planetary Survival

    Climate Justice Corps and EJCC Members © 2005 Ansje Miller

    The fight for climate justice is a classic fight between good and evil, complete with global catastrophe, seemingly unstoppable villains, unlikely heroes, and the threat to life as we know it on this planet. The mythological scale of the issue makes it unlike any other we have ever faced, and adds to the difficulty of organizing around it to make any real change. It is a fight that cannot and will not be won overnight. It will take the continued hard work, dedication, and faith of generations of people. For this reason, today’s youth and future generations play a critical role in the fight for climate justice. Luckily, many of us are taking up the challenge.

    “Climate change is the big daddy of environmental justice problems,” explains Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It is the most critical issue in terms of the number of people impacted.”

    In the not too distant future, we can expect to see an increase in the number of extreme weather events, such as floods, hurricanes, droughts, and tornados; the creation of deserts; the flooding of coastal towns and island nations; the spread of infectious diseases; wars over food, water, and land; the displacement of people; and the extinction of cultures, species, and ecosystems. This is an issue that will, without a doubt, affect every single living being on the planet in a very profound way.

    Despite the seriousness and urgency of the problem, communities are slow to act on it, in large part because the global nature of the climate change issue is not easy to grasp. According to Jill Johnston of the Southwest Workers Union (SWU), “With environmental justice fights, you are taking on an enemy that’s right there in your community, but with climate change, it’s harder for people to see that direct connection, even if it exists. Most work on climate [justice] is at the national or international level, which is separate from the people.”

    Adds Diana Abellera of Redefining Progress, of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, “The climate justice movement links… the fossil fuel industry, globalization, toxic facilities, and climate science to deeply rooted systems of oppression, such as racism, colonialism, and capitalism. Understanding how these systems have led to our dependency on fossil fuels requires a somewhat complex and thorough analysis of modern American society, so combining these abstract concepts can be challenging.”

    This unique challenge, however, can also be turned into an advantage for those working on the issue—in unprecedented ways.

    “Climate justice isn’t just about reducing fossil fuels, improving agricultural processes, or changing urban design. It’s about changing the consciousness of society, changing the things we value, especially in the United States,” says Clayton Thomas-Muller.

    Without a doubt, our current way of life is unsustainable, but because those with power in the world have given in to greed, we are now at a point of no return. Even if we were to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by the necessary amount today, we would still face more hurricanes and droughts, the mass extinction of species, and the displacement of large populations. We, the youth, are fully aware of   this as we step up to take on the fight for climate justice.

    Listen to Youth… for a Change
    In the Gulf Coast region, last year’s hurricanes have spurred the organization of several events to educate the general public about the connection between the hurricanes, climate change, and fossil fuels. Next September, we will see the culmination of two years of work done by youth, with the bi-national Gulf Coast Conference, hosted by the SWU. The conference aims to bring together grassroots communities and workers in the U.S. and Mexico,  to strategize and discuss the future of energy in the Gulf Coast.

    Indigenous youth in the Southwest are experimenting with some innovative sustainable practices, explains Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. “Here, in Arizona, we are taking a pro-active approach to solving climate change. Youth are making connections with people in the community to develop projects around energy-efficient building and growing food, so that we’re not dependent on outside resources. In re-learning and practicing our traditional techniques, we are creating long-term sustainability at the local level.”

    As part of a nationwide Campus Climate Challenge campaign, Indigenous Environmental Network, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and the EJCC are reaching out to colleges and universities that largely serve Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations, to get students involved in the fight for climate justice. In addition to educating youth on renewable energy matters, these organizations will facilitate the development of relationships between students and community leaders.

    This fall marks the launch of the EJCC’s Climate Justice Institute, a program developed to build young leaders who are prepared for a long-term fight for climate justice. The Institute will serve to train and motivate youth leaders from communities disproportionately affected by climate change, through workshops and internships, and other resources necessary to effectively engage in the fight for climate justice.

    Youth are also making an impact at the international level. In December 2005, the EJCC was able to include 10 youth in its delegation to the 11th Conference of the Parties and First Meeting of the Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal, Canada. These youth facilitated workshops and organized events; spoke on climate justice and youth leadership panels; and participated in and led the daily strategy meetings of international youth. The result is, the International Youth Declaration: Our Climate, Our Challenge, Our Future, which advocates a human rights-based approach to tackling climate change.

    As I see it, we, the youth of today, have little choice. Faced with a future full of disasters, wars, disease, and destruction, rather than be scared or depressed, some of us have chosen to fight back. We are putting our faith in our own abilities to make a better future for ourselves. We understand the urgency of the issue and know that it will not be an easy fight. We know that it will require breaking down the old barriers of race and geography. We also realize that we are the underdogs. But as Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

    Jihan Gearon works at Redefining Progress where she is the Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative program associate. 

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      Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |     Credits


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