The Art of Creative Problem Solving

There are few problems more intractable and complicated than climate destabilization. The interaction between the myriad parts of the climate regime, the various feedback loops and the uncertainties that make it so difficult to predict what lies ahead, can seem overwhelming.

But, fortunately, there has been a tremendous unleashing of creative energy aimed at tackling this existential threat. It is this creativity — the seemingly unlimited capacity of humans to take on the most complex challenges — that is the source of our greatest hope.

One of the toughest areas to address lies at the intersection of environmental stewardship and social equity, especially at a time when the degree of inequality in American society has reached levels not seen since the early twentieth century. It was a special honor, in this context, to hear about a new NYSERDA initiative at last month’s TCCPI meeting to develop affordable, net-zero modular homes targeted to provide low-income families with a way to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.

An example of an affordable net zero modular home. Photo courtesy of VEIC.

Working with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), NYSERDA will be spending $230 million over the next three years as it rolls out this new campaign. VEIC is a thirty-year-old nonprofit based in Burlington that is the first of the public-service ESCOs in the U.S. It has, in particular, focused on ways to provide low and moderate income families with ways to increase the energy efficiency of their homes and, in the process, provide significant cost savings for these families.

Currently, 8 million individuals live in manufactured homes in the U.S. These homes typically consume twice the energy of site-built homes. Following Tropical Storm Irene, which destroyed hundreds of mobile homes in Vermont and New York in August 2011, the call went out to replace mobile homes with modular construction.

The new net zero modular homes are equipped with solar PV systems and super efficient technology, including LED lighting, EnergyStar appliances, cold climate heat pump, heat pump water heater, and energy recovery ventilator that also monitors indoor air quality. The result is a manufactured home that not only saves the homeowner money but also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and provides higher quality, healthier homes.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of how human ingenuity and technical prowess can combine to address in one package two of our most serious problems, climate change and inequality. With the right priorities and focus, there is little doubt that more such solutions are on their way.

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Weather v. Climate Redux

Here we go again. One of the favorite gambits of climate skeptics and deniers is to roll out the old chestnut that if the weather is cold outside your door, then global warming (emphasis here on “global”) must be fake news. You would think that anyone playing golf in sunny Florida and commenting on the cold snap in the Northeast would grasp the basic idea. But apparently not. Hence the latest dispatch from the tweeter-in-chief calling for some “good old global warming.”

Putting the concept in terms that even President Trump might understand, Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, observed, “There is still hunger in the world, even if you just had a Big Mac.”

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Graphic courtesy of University of Maine – Climate Change Institute.

The map above makes the same point, using science rather than a metaphorical cheeseburger. It shows all of the places in the world that were experiencing above-average winter temperatures during the current cold spell in the eastern U.S. “Nobody ever said winter would go away under global warming, but winter has become much milder and the record cold days are being far outnumbered by record warm days and heat extremes,” Matthew England, a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, pointed out. “Climate change is not overturned by a few unusually cold days in the U.S.”

In the face of such willful ignorance on the part of the American president, it would be easy to pull up close to the fireplace, take a slug or two of Wild Turkey, and write off the future. But, in fact, Trump’s extreme views on climate change are a reason for hope, not despair. His obstinate refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change has mobilized citizens and their leaders across the globe.

The U.S. withdrawal from Paris, in particular, has energized American corporations, higher education institutions, faith-based organizations, mayors, and governors to take action. Projects for carbon-cutting and green energy at the local and state levels are making every effort to close the gap created by the White House’s insistence on treating the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a hoax. The most prominent coalition emerging since the withdrawal expresses this determination with eloquent conciseness: “We Are Still In.”

Developing countries, too, are recognizing the foolhardiness of President Trump’s stance and are ramping up the production of renewable energy at unprecedented rates. As a recent New York Times article noted recently, “China has indeed moved dramatically on climate change,” seeking to meet its own pledge under the Paris accord to cap carbon emissions by 2030, to launch the world’s largest carbon market, and rapidly expand the use of electric cars.

So, as the clock winds down on 2017, we should turn to 2018 with a renewed commitment to engage in unrelenting local action and national resistance, understanding that Trump is the weather and we are the climate. Best wishes for the new year.

A Season of Havoc

It has been a season of havoc in the western hemisphere, with biblical winds, water, and fire sweeping across the land. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have pounded the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, driving millions of people from their homes and making entire islands uninhabitable. A firestorm has ripped through wine country in northern California, killing dozens of people and flipping cars over with the force of winds generated by the heat. Forests have erupted in flames in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, blocking out the sun for hundreds of miles.

“We are in the unsustainable future,” disaster-preparedness expert Kathleen Tierney recently observed. “Now that the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico have heated up so much, there are going to be more of these big storms and there are going to be more fires.”

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The post-apocalyptic scene in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture licensed under the Creative Commons.

That’s our new reality. But in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration is hard at work, seeking to erase all evidence that the federal government acknowledges this new reality. The now inconveniently named Environmental Protection Agency has removed resources to address climate change from its web site. Last week it  canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference on in Rhode Island. Perhaps most outrageous, it just released a draft of its four-year strategic plan that contains no mention of climate change or greenhouse gas emissions. The list of such inexcusable actions grows longer with every passing day as other federal agencies carry out similar purges.

And the world wonders if we have lost our minds. In late September I attended an international conference on “The U.S. and the World We Inhabit” in Milan, where I had been invited to deliver a keynote on climate activism in the U.S. The main theme of my talk was simple: don’t give up on us; there are lots of Americans pushing back against the effort to dismiss climate change as “fake news.” At one point, I remarked somewhat sarcastically that I doubted Italy had had to mount a “March for Science.” Amidst the laughter a hand went up. “Oh, but we did have a march,” the professor said. “It was for America.”

With this remark came a shared but unspoken understanding: the U.S. has relinquished leadership of the biggest and most important challenge of our time, the transition to a low-carbon economy. How did we get to this point? How is it that the U.S., which for decades led the world in scientific and technological achievement, has become an object of pity rather than a source of inspiration? It was both an embarrassing and infuriating moment, and it left me with plenty to ponder on the flight back home.

Houston, Harvey, and the Future

The ongoing tragedy in Houston is a dramatic reminder of what will happen if we continue to defer action on global warming. Climate change did not “cause” Hurricane Harvey, but it almost certainly intensified the impact of Harvey. The devastation left in the hurricane’s wake provides us with a glimpse of the future awaiting us if we don’t take extraordinary steps to decarbonize our economy now. As Eric Holthaus notes, “This isn’t just a Houston problem.”

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Houston residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Besides giving us a window on what lies ahead if we don’t act to mitigate climate change, Harvey has underscored the extent to which climate change is a social justice issue. The disproportionate impact on Houston residents of this unprecedented storm couldn’t be starker. The economic divisions of Houston are easy to delineate : neighborhoods to the west and south of Houston are significantly better off than those to the east and north.

True to form, the worst damage has been in the poorer neighborhoods, especially those on the east side closest to the oil refineries and petrochemical plants. “You’re talking about a perfect storm of pollution, environmental racism, and health risks that are probably not going to be measured and assessed until decades later,” says Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard.

Here’s the big picture: currently we are putting 41 billion tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere. Scientists have determined that we can only emit 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide before we run the risk of setting off catastrophic climate destabilization. That means we only have 15 years left before we use up our carbon budget. Obviously we cannot wait until year fourteen and then shoot for zero in that last year.

In fact, an article published this past June in Nature argues that if we do not reach peak emissions by 2020 and begin to drop from there the chances of the of not overspending the carbon budget are minimal. That’s three years from now.

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the Paris climate negotiations, along with several scientists, policy makers, and corporate executives, lay out in this article a six-point plan for ensuring that we reach peak emissions in three years. Everything outlined in the plan is achievable but it will require a level of political will and support from civil society that simply does not exist at present.

Among the targets that the plan sets:

  • At least 30% of world’s electricity supply generated by renewables (currently 23%)
  • No new coal-fired power plants built after 2020 and existing plants on the road to retirement
  • Upgrade at least 3% of building stock to zero- or near-zero emissions structures each year
  • 15% of new car sales are electrical vehicles (currently 1%)
  • The financial sector is mobilizing at least $1 trillion a year for climate action

Ambitious goals, yes, but Hurricane Harvey reminds us of the cost we will pay if we don’t start to move immediately to put carbon emissions on a downward path. “The status quo is not an option,” says David Roberts. “We will end up with some mix of prevention, adaptation, and suffering; it is for us to determine the ratio.”

No Moratorium for Climate Change

As the 8th annual Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) report makes clear, there is much to celebrate in our community. Viewed collectively, the report documents an impressive contribution to the fight against climate change. Perhaps most important it demonstrates how collaboration and a sense of common purpose can lead to real progress.

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The Willow Glen Cemetery in Dryden. Photo courtesy of the Town of Dryden.

There is one area, however, of significant concern: the growing opposition in the Finger Lakes region to commercial-scale wind and solar. The debate over solar farms in Dryden, in particular, reflects the sharp divide between those who want to hold on to a nostalgic view of rural life and those who want to address the future challenges that we face as the climate continues to destabilize at a rate that even the most pessimistic computer models have underestimated. “Hillside after hillside, farm land after farm land, field after field they are going to replace our beautiful, beautiful landscape with nothing but industrial solar panels,” declared one opponent in the Dryden controversy, while other opponents decried the disrespect shown to those buried in a nearby cemetery.

The same battle lines have formed in other communities such as Newfield, Enfield, and the Town of Seneca, all of which have recently passed moratoriums on large-scale wind and solar projects in an attempt “to preserve the rural character” of their communities. The irony is that there seems to be little acknowledgement of how climate change is threatening the very foundation of rural life in the Finger Lakes, the biosphere that makes our region so unique.

If we refuse to act with an eye on the future and move rapidly to a clean energy economy, we are faced with the prospect of a new ecosystem making its way north. Projections indicate that, given the current pace of global warming, in as few as 30 to 40 years the climate of upstate New York is likely to resemble that of Georgia. Clearly, such a shift will result in a very different countryside than what our grandparents experienced. Already the average temperature in New York during the winter has climbed 4.4 °F since the 1970s, heavy downpours have increased by 70 percent since the 1950s, and spring begins a week earlier  than it did a few decades ago.

The message is clear: the biggest risk of all is to do nothing. The ecosystem of the Finger Lakes is already experiencing significant stress and only by dramatically reducing our carbon footprint as quickly as possible can we have any chance to avoid exchanging it for a very different ecosystem. Without the development of large-scale wind and solar, there is little to no possibility of avoiding this fate. In short, there is a lot more at stake than spoiling the view.

Go Faster and Go Further

As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration this Saturday, it’s clear that the new president has determined to maintain the fossil fuel regime. In response, hundreds of marches will be held around the country (including in Ithaca), with the main event in Washington, DC. As Bill McKibben notes, “since Trump obviously takes his 100th day seriously, it will be a particularly good day to be around his house reminding him how badly he’s doing.”

The rollback of the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies, which had their own limitations, means that the U.S. will send up to 900 more megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent report, that will increase the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent at a time when we need to be making dramatic cuts in these emissions.

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Trump’s advisors are divided about whether the U.S. should abandon the Paris Agreement, but even the strongest advocates for not doing so want to renegotiate the terms of the accord. In any event, it certainly appears as if we’re handing over leadership on this critical issue to China and Europe. In terms that Trump might understand, such a failure of leadership will do permanent damage to our nation’s brand. But much more than a marketing blunder is at stake;  the fate of human civilization rests on not going down this road.

The one bright light is that the transition to a clean energy economy seems to have reached a tipping point that will carry it forward regardless of any policy shifts. In particular, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, It’s too late to bring back coal or the associated mining jobs, not just because natural gas has become too cheap for coal to be competitive. The costs of wind and solar have dropped so significantly in the last several years that they, too, have become cheaper than goal. This new reality is apparent in the recent decision of the Kentucky Coal Museum to install solar on its roof as a cost-saving measure. Yes, that’s right: the Kentucky Coal Museum is going solar.

The numbers tell an even more impressive story. As the chart above indicates, renewable energy capacity grew 9.3 percent in 2015, the fifth year in a row that the rate has been above 8 percent. In the first quarter of 2016, renewables made up 99 percent of the new electricity production capacity in the U.S., and from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 they increased from 14 percent of electricity to 17 percent. In contrast, coal dropped during that same period from 36 percent to 29 percent.

The global growth in solar has been especially explosive. For the first time since 2013, solar outpaced wind in 2016. The primary driver has been the astonishing reduction in the cost of utility-scale solar: it fell 62 percent from 2009 to 2015 and is projected to drop another 57 percent by 2025.

At the same time, renewables have become a key source of new employment around the world. Renewable energy jobs rose by 5 percent in 2015 to 8.1 million and there were an additional 1.3 million jobs in large-scale hydropower. In another sign of the historic transition taking place, the American solar industry now employs more workers than coal: 209,000 compared to about 150,000 jobs.

So we’re moving in the right direction; that’s the good news. The not-so-good news, however, is that we need to move a lot faster and go a lot further. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), we need to double the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix by 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C. Overall, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent per year on average to meet the Paris target.

Accomplishing this task is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. And, clearly, we can’t count on the federal government to make it happen; it’s up to us. All the more reason we need to take to the streets on Saturday and make our voices heard.

On the Importance of Building Sand Castles

Warning: an historian’s Lemony-Snicket view of the world. Proceed with caution!

We are facing an unprecedented threat to modern civilization. Even at the height of the Cold War, when only two nations possessed the great preponderance of nuclear warheads, there was a pretty clear cut solution that didn’t necessitate the elimination of the very basis of that civilization. That’s hardly the situation now as we undergo an accelerating pace of climate destabilization set in motion by our use of fossil fuels.

When you throw into the mix an unwavering insistence on preserving the American Way of Life and the possession of nuclear arms by some of the very nations that have the most exposure to catastrophic climate chaos (Pakistan, India, the Middle East, etc.), and then inject the fuel of extreme religious fervor, what are the possibilities of implementing an adequate solution?

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It’s this hydra-headed threat of climate chaos, nuclear proliferation, American commitment to material consumption, and religious fanaticism (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu — let’s be clear about that) that makes the whole situation so dark. And on top of all this you put a sociopath like Donald Trump in the White House? Good luck is all I can say.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine a path through the conundrum that we have created for ourselves. I don’t think you can disentangle climate destabilization from the other factors — that’s what’s so grim about the current situation. Each factor is just as real and threatening as the other, and they’re all mutually reinforcing.

If the crisis involved only climate change, then the possibility of some kind of technical solution emerging within the necessary time frame could be envisioned, much like arms control agreements during the Cold War. But when the other variables are factored in? Not so much.

If you’re interested in trying to be a moral person with some semblance of integrity, I’m afraid the only reasonable course of action is to do what you can in your own local community, while recognizing with clear eyes, that you’re building your sand castle well below the high tide line.

But at least you’re doing something. It’s the beach version of Sisyphus‘s punishment. The difference for us, obviously, is there’s a beginning, middle, and end, unlike poor Sisyphus, whose plight is eternal.

Time for Some Good News?

There are plenty of discouraging climate-related developments out there — Hurricane Matthew, wildfires in the West, the ongoing drought in central New York. You don’t even have to look beyond our country’s borders to find enough bad news to make you want to pull the covers over your head. And, globally speaking, we’re still on track for 2016 to be the warmest year since records began in 1880.

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Hurricane Matthew

But believe it or not there’s actually been quite a bit of good news so far in October. As Vox reported the other day, here’s what this month has brought so far:

1) Canada is putting a nationwide carbon tax in place. On October 4, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government the  tax starting in 2018.

2) That same day the Paris climate agreement went into effect. Enough countries ratified the the deal so it’s now officially “in force.” Governments will have to regularly report and review their progress on emissions to the UN.

3) A new global deal on aviation emissions was signed two days later. More than 190 countries  agreed to offset much of the global growth in aviation emissions starting in 2020. This deal has plenty of flaws but it’s the first time the International Civil Aviation Organization has addressed the climate impact of flying, one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2.

4) Finally, on October 15, 197 countries  agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a very potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Vox described this as “probably the most important climate policy taken to date.” It’s estimated that the HFC treaty alone could prevent between 0.2°C and 0.44°C of warming by the end of the century. When ratified, this agreement will be legally binding and enforceable through trade sanctions.

Closer to home, we’ve also seen some positive developments recently:

1) Cornell just issued an important report outlining its options for meeting its target of carbon neutrality by 2035.  The release of the report by the Senior Leader Climate Action Group, will begin the next phase of campus and community engagement around this very ambitious goal.

2) New York’s  2016 Energy Conservation Construction Code went into effect on October 3rd for residential and commercial buildings. The new code calls for improvements in the design and construction of energy-efficient building envelopes and the installation of energy-efficient mechanical, lighting and power systems through requirements emphasizing performance.

3) The Tompkins County Planning Department announced that it has completed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories. The report shows that the Tompkins County Community reduced its emissions by 21% between 2008 and 2014 and Tompkins County Government reduced its emissions by 53% during this same period. The not-so-good news, however, is that when fugitive methane emissions outside of the County are taken into account total emissions due to expanded natural gas use have probably risen significantly.

4) Last but not least, in August New York established the Clean Energy Standard, a mandate that requires 50 percent of New York’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030. The Clean Energy Standard is critical to reducing the State’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Of course, even when the impact of all these developments is added up, we still don’t come close to keeping global warming below 2°C, the generally agreed upon ceiling for preventing runaway climate change. But they demonstrate that collective action is possible and by joining together we can build on these achievements to make further progress. As Bill McKibben points out, “”The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual…Job one is to organize and jobs two and three.”

Why a 2030 District in Ithaca?

The drought in the Finger Lakes this summer has been a stark reminder that climate change is already under way not just in some distant land but in our own backyard, That doesn’t mean we should throw the towel in and concede defeat, however. On the contrary, we need to redouble our efforts to reduce our community’s greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst that could happen.

One of the most effective ways to do fight climate change is to improve the energy and water performance of our buildings. The built environment — commercial and municipal office buildings as well as multi-family housing — is a large consumer of natural resources and generator of emissions. In fact, 75 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States is used just to operate buildings, and the building sector is responsible for 45 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.

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HOLT Architect’s new office — the site of a former auto parts store — is near net zero energy.

The Ithaca 2030 District got its initial impetus from a 2013 visit by Ed Mazria, the founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, which issued the 2030 Challenge. Mr. Mazria was the keynote speaker at HOLT Architects‘ 50th anniversary celebration and he met with the members of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) while he was in town. TCCPI and HOLT began soon after to explore the potential of a 2030 District in Ithaca. With the support of its coalition members, establishing a 2030 District in Ithaca became an official project of TCCPI in 2014.

The Park Foundation and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), through the Cleaner, Greener Communities program, have provided support to plan and begin building the Ithaca 2030 District. In addition, Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins County, HOLT Architects, and Taitem Engineering have contributed significant in-kind gifts in the form of pro bono services.

Besides promoting crucial climate protection measures, the Ithaca 2030 District seeks to demonstrate that healthy and high performing buildings make good financial sense. District members will do this by bringing together diverse stakeholders, leveraging existing and developing new incentives and financing mechanisms, and creating and sharing joint resources. They will develop realistic, measurable, and innovative strategies to assist district property owners, managers, and tenants in meeting aggressive goals that keep properties and businesses competitive while operating buildings more efficiently, reducing costs, and reducing the environmental impacts of facility construction, operation, and maintenance.

The District builds on the TCCPI model to provide a non-competitive environment where building owners, community organizations, and professionals come together to share best practices and accelerate market transformation in Ithaca’s built environment. These collaborative efforts will establish the Ithaca 2030 District as an example of a financially viable, sustainability focused, multi-sector driven effort that maximizes profitability and prosperity for all involved.

The Arctic Gets a New Ecosystem

As the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get want you want.” Fair enough. But sometimes, unfortunately, you get exactly the opposite of what you need. That’s certainly true of the Arctic this past winter. The last thing it needed was to break another warm weather record, yet that’s exactly what happened.

The extent of the warming has even caught scientists off guard. The record jump in temperatures “is probably the all-time surprise we’ve seen in the Arctic,” according to Jim Overland, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]

Needless to say, when you manage to surprise the folks who’ve spent their careers studying you, you’ve accomplished something. Not necessarily something good, but something. What does this mean for the Arctic?

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What it means is that the Arctic gets a complete makeover. Yes, that’s right. A new ecosystem is emerging in the Arctic and it’s wreaking havoc with life in the region: thinner ice, shorter winters, new animals, new vegetation. In short, everything is changing. Everything.

“For the elders in the community, they’ve seen the entire ecosystem change,” said Fort Yukon local Ed Alexander in a Washington Post report last month. “A lot of it is a dramatic change. We have a whole other ecosystem here.”

Oops. We did that. The salmon are smaller, the caribou have changed their migration routes, new plant life is overgrowing usually clear dog sled trails, more forest fires are occurring, and even cardinals are showing up in Fort Yukon.

Think about that last news flash. It’s the rough equivalent of pink flamingos making an appearance on the shores of Cayuga Lake. Imagine the shock if that happened while you were walking along the Waterfront Trail. In the words of Mr. Alexander, “When you see a red bird for the first time in your life, you take note.”

And in case you think it’s only Alaska that has caught climate scientists by surprise, think again. Here’s what Mike MacFerrin, a University of Colorado climate scientist, had to say earlier this month about another well-known region in the Arctic: “melt in Greenland, over this wide an area, this early in the season, is not supposed to happen.”

In fact, the melt was taking place so early and so fast in Greenland that scientists thought something must be wrong with their data so they went back and checked. Get this: thermometers on and around the ice showed temperatures as high as 64 degrees Fahrenheit on April 11. That’s more than 35 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, which for that part of the world is more like a warm day in the summer.

Oops. We did that, too. To paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, “we broke it, we own it.” But now that we own it will we ever own up to it? That’s the really big question, isn’t it?