The public good and stopping climate change are inseperable and existential
Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cumbria, UK
Read Part 1 HERE
Photo: Helena Lopes via Pexels
Grandpa didn’t cry wolf. Neither did Mum. It was the boy. In the original Greek fable, there was actually a wolf on one occasion, but no one believed the boy when he raised the alarm. So this famous tale about the problem of false alarms also reminds us of real hazards. I think the fable has resonated throughout the last two and half thousand years partly because we know that young people can see things that the rest of us are too busy, too confident, too tired, or too ‘pragmatic’ to see. Today young people have been crying catastrophe. I don’t think they are they being too dramatic and too emotional. Do you? Yet many science communicators are trying to reassure both them and us that we can ‘fix’ climate change. In this second part of my essay on key mistakes in climate communication, I explore what kind of alarm is warranted about the climate crisis.
In Part 1, I described one of the most important past mistakes – the problem of using incomparable averages like “the world has warmed 1.3C degrees since the 1800s” or “we must limit warming to 2C degrees.” Advocates of action on climate change could easily correct that mistake by communicating differently in future. For instance, former Harvard scientist and localised solar reflection expert, Dr Ye Tao, told me that we could explain how, in only a couple of hundred years, industrialisation has already increased world temperatures by 20% of the total range of temperatures experienced since the first homo sapiens walked this Earth over 200,000 years ago.i That conveys more of the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, like a form of discursive pollution, an unhelpful framing of incremental changes in averages now exists in society, and will continue to be used by deniers to cloud the issue. I mention that because I believe it highlights how important it is to try and avoid any future mistakes in how we frame the climate crisis. Therefore, in Part 2 of this essay on failures in climate communications, I look at what may be emerging now as the next big mistake. That is, to frame global heating as something we should respond to because we can fix it. Thus implying that global greenhouse gas emissions, warming, and the resulting damage can all be halted within decades, so that the previously stable climate can be returned to.
Such a perspective reflects an ideological choice that we respond to climate change in order to fix it, rather than to give humanity a better chance of less suffering. The ‘fix the climate’ framing arises from ideas about reality and ethics that are dominant in modern secular cultures. It is the dual idea that humans are in control of our situation on Earth and that individually we do things because they achieve material results. Instead, throughout history, people have acted in service of the public good without knowing if it will work, or how much it might work. We do that because we believe it to be the right thing to do to alleviate suffering, enable joy, and to contribute to future possibilities. Later on, I’ll reference some of the psychological research which demonstrates that such sentiments are alive and well within the field of climate activism. But first I will explain the way cultural bias is influencing the choices that scientists make about how to communicate science, before looking at a particular case of the dismissal of young people’s views on the nature of the climate predicament. I will then offer some reflections on how to help each other share our uncomfortable views with others.
The problematic unacknowledged ideological bias of many scientists
When I talk to climatologists and others who communicate on climate issues, I often hear a elision of two issues which are in fact distinct. First, there is the task of assessing a range of scientific studies, and coming to a credible perspective on our current situation and possible future. It is important to note that different conclusions can be drawn from the same suite of scientific studies. People who argue, or behave as if, there is one objectively correct conclusion from scientific work on any aspect of the Earth system are, somewhat ironically, not being scientific. That is especially the case when dealing with complex systems and future scenarios. Talking about ‘high confidence’ or ‘consensus’ can be unhelpful if they are then used as a proxy for the fantasy of one objective truth. It is an unfortunate aspect of recent scientific discussion that differing credible interpretations of available science have been infected with a moral flavour, where views that differ from those currently favoured by authorities are criticised and marginalised, along with people who express them. This can be in part of an expert’s anticipation of the potential implications of some interpretations of science. Which brings us to the second issue of ‘anticipated implications’ – what an expert thinks might be the impact of differing scientific conclusions for the emotions and choices of ourselves and other people.
Most scientists with whom I discuss this topic of ‘anticipated implications’ are reluctant to explore how it influences their scientific work. Being trained in natural scientific methods, many climate scientists are not open to trying to understand how their own subjectivities and institutional contexts influence the design of their research, their prioritising of findings, where they consider the burden of proof to lie, how they regard the general public, how they conceive of being professional, what they regard as ethical (such as progress, optimism and hope) and thus how to communicate. For instance, I have often read and heard of the assumption by scientists that despair is both frightening and unhelpful, and so should be avoided. That is based on a set of cultural attitudes about emotions, optimism, and progress that is so widespread that many speculate on an evolutionary origin for an optimism bias. However, psychological research has found that a period of despair related to ‘catastrophic imaginaries’ can be both personally transformative and politically radicalising. Even rather severe anxiety related to the environmental situation has been found to motivate climate activism. Other research has also found that optimism on the climate correlates with less action, not more.
The way scientists let the ‘anticipated implications’ of some conclusions affect their scientific work is highlight with the issue of ‘committed warming.’ In private communications, I have seen top scientists write that groups like Extinction Rebellion should not give the impression that there will be inevitable catastrophic impacts in the future, as they contend (without evidence) that it might undermine commitment to act. ‘Committed warming’ refers to the extent to which global heating will continue in the years ahead, no matter what humans manage to do on either emissions reduction or carbon drawdown. The available science points to both inevitably increasing impacts from existing warming as well as inevitable additional warming in future, with unpredictable but certainly worsening impacts. Modelling theoretical impossibilities (such as immediate global net zero emissions of carbon dioxide) based on only parts of the Earth system (so excluding key factors like methane) should not be a basis for claiming we can end the currently difficult or prevent a worsening situation. Yet such claims have been made by top scientists when communicating with both the public and government. As we saw earlier, their decision to ‘stay positive’ is based on questionable assumptions about psychology, society and politics. Their choices also happen to align with some personal and professional interests and the wider establishment interest in rendering climate change a non-radical agenda.
Making money at the end of the world as we know it
The establishment narrative that climate change can be fixed often includes an invitation to believe in technologies that are not yet viable solutions, such as Direct Air Capture (DAC) machines, which suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. These technologies now comprise a sector attracting huge government subsidies and multi-billion-dollar investments. Looking at the energetics and economics of these machines reveals they are not a sensible part of the necessary response to the climate crisis. That was the finding of the research team after “Assessing the feasibility of carbon dioxide mitigation options in terms of energy usage” in the top journal Nature Energy. As this message was not being heard, Peter Dynes of the MEER Reflection project attempted a simple summary. He explained that over two years the Climeworks current DAC plant will capture the equivalent CO2 of pop star Taylor Swift’s annual emissions. He said their larger plant, which is taking 18 months to build, will capture 4 years’ worth of her emissions annually. Although technologically savvy humans like to think they are not superstitious, the DAC machines may be taking on the symbolic meaning of ‘lucky charms’ that are clasped by people faced with threats to their identity and worldview. Though they are far more expensive and energy-intensive than, say, a bead necklace.
Clearly, the trillion-dollar renewable energy sector does not benefit from public analysis of the insufficient availability of rare earth metals that would be needed to realise full electrification, the damage caused to extract them, and the heating spike that will be caused by the end of the masking effect from burning fossil fuels. The nuclear industry does not benefit from regulators and investors wondering about their safety in 30 years, with rising seas, greater storm surges, drying river beds, and wider societal disruption. More generally, none of the corporations that shape politics around the world are supportive of the idea that policies need to fairly redistribute a shrinking amount of consumption and production of goods and services. Instead, they continue to uphold the now debunked myth that it is possible to significantly decouple GDP growth from resource and energy consumption. Collectively, these are huge incumbent interests in promoting a narrative that not only will climate change be fixed, but that they’ll fix it, with their great technologies, entrepreneurship and leadership. We just need to do as we are told. Which is to stay positive, keep working, shopping, saving, while admonishing people who don’t believe recycling will save the world, and remaining deferential to institutional authority. That is a narrative which receives major backing and attains a massive audience. For instance, Kurzgesagt, among the most watched online science communications video channels, whose animation titled “We WILL fix climate change” makes that case to, already, over 8 million viewers. It comes as no surprise that some of that channel’s work is funded by an extreme modernist philosopher whose “best guess” is that rich world agriculture will be just fine in conditions that currently resemble those of the Western Sahara (see Part 1 of this essay for my discussion of that).
Ten years ago this narrative was described as ‘brightsiding’ the public on climate change, by David Spratt, a foresighted critic of establishment narratives. The urban dictionary defines brightsiding as “the act of spinning a positive outlook on any situation no matter how depressing it may seem.” Despite the increasingly worsening climate and more worrying climate science, climate brightsiding is now stronger than ever. That reflects the mix of corporate interests, incumbent power, and cultural norms that align to maintain the credible lie that “they’ll fix it”. Unfortunately there are now a lot of professionals in this field that are seeking profits and career advancement – people who risk becoming ‘climate users’ who are addicted to fake stories of success to fuel their own advancement. Unfortunately, there will be real consequences from the actions of people in maintaining those lies, because it prevents people from recognising that our new era of intersecting crises, or polycrisis, is foregrounding a widening metadisaster that will, in time, affect all of humanity. Adhering to the belief that ‘they’ll fix it’ is essentially prolonging the power of ideologies and associated policies and practices that have lost their relevance. That includes the whole field of sustainable development and the woefully failing sustainable development goals (SDGs). Ignoring climate reality also postpones a deeper reckoning in civil society about how such a catastrophe has been allowed to build. It also steals precious time from considering what might be done to have a significant chance of reducing harm, including emissions reductions, drawdown and adaptation. One of the worst negative impacts is that an unwarranted positivity adds insult to injury for younger generations who already sense the difficult future they face – something that highlights how bad this emerging mistake in climate communications can become.
Climate brightsiding the young and the poor
Ten years ago, the communications firm Futerra was identified by David Spratt as a prominent brightsider. The science has got a lot more troubling over the past decade, so how have things progressed with their narratives? I looked at some of their most high-profile work, which revealed a newly sinister aspect to brightsiding – the pathologizing of climate-concerned younger generations.
Futerra recently worked with the research firm Ipsos to produce a global study on the opinions people have about climate change, surveying 20,000 people from 27 countries. Perhaps the most important finding was that only 17% of those polled believed that “humanity is able to reduce climate change and we are going to do so successfully.” Nearly a third of all respondents said that humanity will not “reduce climate change” (though it is unclear if that meant reducing current or potential amounts of heating and disruption). The first thing we could notice from their data is that away from the public utterances of experts, pundits and politicians, there is widespread public realism about how bad the situation has become. However, that is not what stubborn optimists want us to focus on. People who think “humanity cannot reduce climate change” were dubbed “fatalists” by Futerra, rather than simply pessimists. People who think “humanity is able to reduce climate change but we are not going to do it” are dubbed “defeatists,” rather than simply realists. With those labels in hand, the communications teams then go on to pathologize the young, denigrate the poor, dismiss the Majority World, and be ready to blame the realists if it does actually turn out bad in the end.
The environmental concern amongst younger generations is now well documented. For instance, one major study found that three quarters of young people from 16 to 25 years greed with the statement “the future is frightening.” As a result, 4 in 10 young people said they feared having children. Futerra’s article on its own research explained that a fifth of the youngest (under 35 y/o) cohort said they believe it is ‘too late to fix climate change.’ That was 66% higher than in older age groups. Widespread understandings on the psychology of ageing could help explain that difference. First, the personality characteristic of ‘openness to experience’ is stronger in young people, as it typically declines with age. Layperson understandings of that difference are reflected in tropes about young people being more reckless, or more creative, or more likely to adopt new ideas, styles and technologies. Second, the personality characteristic of being open to experiencing emotions is also relatively stronger in younger people. Layperson understandings of that difference are reflected in tropes about young people being more emotional than older people. Therefore, one can expect that younger people will be more alive to recent information, and more emotionally affected by it.
The implication of these differences in attributes of younger and older people is that the latter, myself included, should be hearing what young people have to say. It is why the child psychologist Caroline Hickman explained to me that the main issue to keep in mind when considering young people’s eco-anxiety is to dialogue with them, rather than think we should protect their emotions. That was my experience when making the film, Oskar’s Quest, about young people leading their parents and schools on climate change issues, including recognising bad case scenarios. A similarly respectful and collaborative approach is reflected in Generation Dread, a book on young people’s climate distress. Rather than their bleak outlook on the future leading to apathy, young climate activists report remaining motivated to try and make the best of a bad situation. Author Clive Hamilton has spoken to many young activists who regard the climate crisis as unlikely to be solved through their activism. One 18 year old climate activist answered her own question, sadly: “Will that showing up and acting early be enough to solve the climate crisis? I honestly don’t think so.” Nevertheless, she keeps pushing for change.
Meeting young people where they are at is essential for effective communications about environmental issues and what to do about them. Unfortunately, some of the eco-modernist devotees to technological salvation do not appear to be interested in that. Analysing their data that young people were 66% more pessimistic about climate futures, the consultants Futerra said that was “highlighting a fatalism about their future not found in older groups.” Rather than recognise young people’s perspectives as valid, they were framed as “…deeply worrying levels of fatalism…” Climate brightsiding a whole generation, by pathologizing them as emotionally deficient rather than realistic, honest and brave, adds insult to the injury of leaving young people such a degraded and disrupted planet.
The climate brightsiders’ will to believe doesn’t just cast young people as deficient. The opinions of the poor and citizens of the Global South are also displeasing to the true believers. Futerra reported that “…more educated and higher income citizens are more likely to feel optimistic…’ What these consultants to the largest consumer firms in the world failed to mention is how there has always been a correlation between more education and higher income with support for the status quo. The consultants then continued to apply the term “fatalism” to billions more people, stating “the highest ratios of fatalism are in the Global South.” Rather than respect the views of people in countries like India, where massively disruptive impacts of climate change are already occurring, it is easier for a corporate communications firm to describe them as disappointingly negative.
Futerra summarises its analysis as reporting “a new inequality of attitude dependent on age, wealth and location.” Which means they want us to regard realistic views on climate change as a ‘lack’ of positive emotions, somewhat equivalent to lacking human rights, nutrition or educational opportunities. What next? Humanitarian aid to play upbeat climate videos of Bill Gates raving about carbon capture technologies to kids across Africa and Asia?
So how can consultants like Futerra be so confident about the downside of believing we will not fix climate change? I have already cited psychology research that demonstrates the opposite. That is also backed up by many first hand stories of leading climate activists. In their slide deck on their research the main evidence for their psychological framework is a quote from the late industrialist Henry Ford about positive thinking. We can presume they have a more substantial theory behind their work, but it is not provided in those publications on this research. Mentioning a car manufacturer is fitting due to their emphasis on businesses and technologies. They report that their research shows “new technologies inspire us more than government or business” and so advocate focusing on technology. Here we see the complementarity of corporate interests and delusional optimism on climate change, that underpins the ecomodern story of salvation through technology. It means technology will keep being promoted as the answer in order to elicit some more positivity from the public, despite that not correlating with demands for the kinds of radical social change required to have a chance of any beneficial impact on climate breakdown. Now some might ask whether that is the point? Which brings us to the matter of how the largest firms in the world are backing this overtly ideological agenda.
This month, as world leaders gather in New York, Google is supporting Futerra’s ‘Solutions House’. Its strapline is “answers only.” Clearly then, an evidence-based problematizing of their unhelpful climate narratives won’t be welcome. So here are some ‘answers’ I suggest they discuss. First, breaking up Google/Alphabet and all monopoly companies which, because of their market dominance, drive inequality, undermine government finances, and distort public perceptions in favour of the highest bidders for online adverts. Clearly without such massive transformation in the distribution of power in societies, there cannot be effective responses to any environmental challenge, let alone resilience during increasing disruptions. Second, regulate policy processes more effectively so that corporate communications firms and their clients have far less influence in national and international policy making on environmental and other issues. Clearly the corporate influence on policy making has hindered effective progress on both climate and many other issues. I realise that these won’t be top of the agenda in any Big Tech sponsored networking event. But at the very least, firms with massive influence like Google must be careful not to support gaslighting the young or the poor on climate change – or indeed any of us.
Unfortunately, most climate brightsiders will keep peddling their stories while their fat invoices are paid and they believe they can blame the rest of us for failure. They already have their alibi ready for when situations become even more difficult, as they already criticise “’the self-fulfilling prophecy that fatalistic attitudes can bring about.” Yes, they will even blame realists as reality occurs. Which is definitely some ‘creative communications’.
Recognising the emotional toll of engaging in climate reality
Another downside of devout adherence to stories of the human power to fix climate change is when it comes with a righteous condemnation of the non-believers. That is leading to division amongst environmental professionals and climate activists, undermining the potential for positive radicalisation, and delaying necessary discussion and initiative on adaptation to global heating. Recent years have seen the emergence of criticisms of people who do not think we can avoid either societal breakdowns or catastrophic damage – criticisms that are not in the normal realms of scientific discourse. People are negatively labelled ‘doomers’ and their views often misrepresented, their logic and ethics maligned, their activism and social contributions ignored, and their influence both misunderstood and condemned.
Some critics even reach for outlandish and unsubstantiated theories of Russian misinformation campaigns to entice a desire to ‘cancel’ people for views they do not like. My own work has been widely misrepresented in mainstream magazines in ways that can then demonise my intentions (after years, I finally complained and received a retraction). On one occasion I was misrepresented in ways that could lead to people thinking I am racist. But don’t take my word for it. Commenting on an article in Open Democracy which extensively misrepresented my work, Professor Cash Ahenakew wrote: “As an Indigenous scholar… I would caution the authors of this article against instrumentalizing Indigenous and other struggles to mobilize aggression [against people they disagree with].” Other notable examples include some science communicators condemning the co-editor of my book, Rupert Read, for telling University of Cambridge students that his generation had failed them as they faced a very disrupted future. His critics seemed to forget that University students are adults – or that the general public are as capable of discussing possible truths as they are. Another example is the condemnation of the climate scientist Bill McGuire for stating in his recent book that terrible loss and damage is now inevitable. An earlier backlash to the author Jonathan Franzen was particularly concerning, as it led to social media companies penalising people and groups that shared his analysis that catastrophic change had become inevitable. Top climate scientists Dr Wolfgang Knorr and Professor Will Steffen rebutted the censoring of the article by Jonathan Franzen, but their objections were, until this point, ignored.
Many people in the richer English-speaking nations who self-describe as progressives explain their reason for doomer-bashing as including a wish to maintain enthusiasm for environmental activism. For instance, in preambles to aggressive criticism of collapse anticipation, The Ecologist magazine said it was contributing to Extinction Rebellion reconsidering its narrative and avoiding doomism. As described earlier in this essay, it is simply false to claim that either pessimism or catastrophic imaginaries lead to apathy, given that both research and recent first-hand experience demonstrates the opposite. Increasingly, voices from the Majority World are also calling out the progressives in the West for their self-serving stories of reform and transition. Kenyan climate resilience expert, Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau writes that “the millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.”
Given that such analyses and views are readily available to the Western scientists, advocates and journalists who engage in doomer-bashing, what might be going on here? By studying psychology and talking to psychologists, I learned that ‘doomer bashing’ can become aggressive when it is driven by emotional pain and an aversion to that pain. Rather than allowing the difficult emotions, seemingly unbearable, associated with certain interpretations of the science, the people who share such interpretations are regarded as the source of the pain. An additional problem may arise if people’s ‘experiential avoidance’ of difficult emotions were to continue into a new situation where they also anticipate bad to worst case scenarios of climate futures. That is because new forms of aggression might emerge, such as authoritarianism, in the name of ‘saving what we can’. Therefore, it is important to not only avoid ‘climate brightsiding’ but to support each other in our processing of, and living with, very difficult emotions about the situation with climate change. Otherwise, the biggest mistake in climate communications might eventually become support for fascism.
I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to speak to the general public about the rightly terrifying reality of climate change, as many hundreds of scholars now assess it to be. Many, like myself, have publicly concluded that the direct and indirect effects of global heating will continue to disrupt societies to an extent that modern consumer ways of life will breakdown. To present such difficult outlooks to the general public in a brief TV news segment would be problematic. Instead, it needs the media producers and journalists to realise and feel the truth of the situation for themselves, and therefore be able to hear, not dismiss or diminish, the bad news, and for their media outlets to provide links for audiences to access emotional support, whether from community-based dialogue or professional guidance (in person or remotely). However, misrepresenting the science on both the problem and what would be significant responses is neither tenable nor defensible.
I believe scientists could learn from how Extinction Rebellion’s spokespersons framed the issue in 2018 and 2019, before the wider environmental profession engaged with XR and watered-down its message. XR’s original message was to tell the truth that climate change is going to cause suffering around the world, including in the world’s richer countries, so the need now is for each of us to prioritise giving both humanity and life on Earth a better chance by immediately exploring all possible technological, social, economic and political changes. It was a message that resonated with me and that I was able to convey when helping open the International Rebellion in April 2019.
“We gather and rebel not with a vision of a fairy-tale future where we have fixed the climate, but because it is right to do what we can. To slow the change. To reduce the harm. To save what we can. To invite us back to sanity and love. The truth is we are scared and we are brave enough to say so. The truth is we are grieving and we are proud enough to say so. The truth is we are traumatised and we are open enough to say so. We are angry and we are calm enough to say so and invite others to join us.”
To be a spokesperson for such a message, while avoiding becoming depressed or numb to the issue (and thus counterproductive as the message-giver) is not at all easy. I have not relished the role, and so rarely give speeches or appear in the media. I know that we do need to try, and that we can be helped by receiving emotional and psychological support – something available from various networks now, such as the DA Guides and the Scholars’ Warning initiative.
The way ahead
To become better at communicating the situation with climate change, we need to be open about how difficult this topic is for us, emotionally, and to experiment. Thankfully we see signs of more people in establishment positions telling the truth. Bernice Lee OBE, with Chatham House, came close when she told the media that the damaging summer of 2022 is not only something countries are “unprepared and underprepared” for, but that impacts are likely to become worse.
Education scholar Blanche Verlie invites us to see we are already “climate-changed” people, as existing disruptions and anxieties are already reshape our sense of self, society and reality. She says that dialogue and action should now start from there.
Although misrepresentations of the climate situation are likely to persist, it would likely be counterproductive to respond to that by trying to silence voices that disagree with us. There is growing concern about how misinformation and disinformation about climate issues is spread online by social media. However, currently much of that concern comes from people who maintain the establishment narrative on climate. Therefore, we see ‘factcheckers’ pass a judgement on Jonathan Franzen (to then be criticised for that factcheck by top climate scientists), but no judgements passed on the misinformation about decoupling and direct air capture in the “we WILL fix climate change” video that reaches millions. Some critics might wish to see social media stamp a ‘factcheck’ warning label on any content based on the bizarre “guess” by William MacAskill that Western agriculture can survive with 15C degrees of global average warming (see Part 1). After all, his ideas reach millions of people via popular youtube videos. However, to start censoring content would add fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories that portray climate change as a scam by elites to try and control the masses. Instead, we need to get better at communicating, by recognising our own reticence to reveal our worries and emotions, and being aware of framing, as I explained in Part 1. We must try to connect with people who are simply too busy to engage in the way that you do by reading this long essay. When more people can ‘feel the truth’ of our predicament, then we might see the opening of political space for what I call a Real Green Revolution. That is a comprehensive effort to reduce the pressures we experience to exploit each other and nature, as well reduce the barriers to us to do the right things for each other and nature. Yes, such revolutionary change will be unpredictable, unruly, and involve you losing some of your privileges and status. Which brings me back to the start: why we communicate science with others.
Our loyalty to science is a loyalty to the better understanding of reality. Why do we want to do that? Not to make money. Not to make ourselves feel better. We might do it to simply know, yes, but also to share that knowledge for the benefit of younger generations. We should not presume to determine what young people need to know or how they should think. We should not assume they are ‘crying wolf’ when they conclude it is too late to stop massive disruption and even breakdown in our societies. As one schoolgirl in my short film said about some people sugar-coating the latest climate science:
“Who are you trying to protect?”
i In fact, it is still the same 20% even if we looked back 5 million years. The historical average temperature of planet Earth has been compiled by Glen Fergus based on peer-reviewed studies using isotope analyses in sediments and icecores (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:All_palaeotemps.png). The compilation shows that the temperature during Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene fluctuated between -5 and +2 degrees relative to the 1960 and 1990 average for a range of 7 degrees Celsius. The current increase has been 1.3C since 1900 and 1.5C since 1750. The increase since industrialization is therefore 20%.
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