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Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

Less energy is escaping to space: Carbon dioxide (CO2) acts like a blanket; adding more CO2 makes the 'blanket' thicker, and humans are adding more CO2 all the time.

Climate Myth...

There's no empirical evidence

"There is no actual evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming. Note that computer models are just concatenations of calculations you could do on a hand-held calculator, so they are theoretical and cannot be part of any evidence." (David Evans)

The proof that man-made CO2 is causing global warming is like the chain of evidence in a court case. CO2 keeps the Earth warmer than it would be without it. Humans are adding CO2 to the atmosphere, mainly by burning fossil fuels. And there is empirical evidence that the rising temperatures are being caused by the increased CO2.

The Earth is wrapped in an invisible blanket

It is the Earth’s atmosphere that makes most life possible. To understand this, we can look at the moon. On the surface, the moon’s temperature during daytime can reach 100°C (212°F). At night, it can plunge to minus 173°C, or -279.4°F. In comparison, the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded in Antarctica: −89.2°C (−128.6°F). According to the WMO, the hottest was 56.7°C (134°F), measured on 10 July 1913 at Greenland Ranch (Death Valley).

Man could not survive in the temperatures on the moon, even if there was air to breathe. Humans, plants and animals can’t tolerate the extremes of temperature on Earth unless they evolve special ways to deal with the heat or the cold. Nearly all life on Earth lives in areas that are more hospitable, where temperatures are far less extreme.

Yet the Earth and the moon are virtually the same distance from the sun, so why do we experience much less heat and cold than the moon? The answer is because of our atmosphere. The moon doesn’t have one, so it is exposed to the full strength of energy coming from the sun. At night, temperatures plunge because there is no atmosphere to keep the heat in, as there is on Earth.

The laws of physics tell us that without the atmosphere, the Earth would be approximately 33°C (59.4°F) cooler than it actually is.

This would make most of the surface uninhabitable for humans. Agriculture as we know it would be more or less impossible if the average temperature was −18 °C. In other words, it would be freezing cold even at the height of summer.

The reason that the Earth is warm enough to sustain life is because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases act like a blanket, keeping the Earth warm by preventing some of the sun’s energy being re-radiated into space. The effect is exactly the same as wrapping yourself in a blanket – it reduces heat loss from your body and keeps you warm.

If we add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the effect is like wrapping yourself in a thicker blanket: even less heat is lost. So how can we tell what effect CO2 is having on temperatures, and if the increase in atmospheric CO2 is really making the planet warmer?

One way of measuring the effect of CO2 is by using satellites to compare how much energy is arriving from the sun, and how much is leaving the Earth. What scientists have seen over the last few decades is a gradual decrease in the amount of energy being re-radiated back into space. In the same period, the amount of energy arriving from the sun has not changed very much at all. This is the first piece of evidence: more energy is remaining in the atmosphere.

 

Total Earth Heat Content from Church et al. (2011)

What can keep the energy in the atmosphere? The answer is greenhouse gases. Science has known about the effect of certain gases for over a century. They ‘capture’ energy, and then emit it in random directions. The primary greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water vapour, nitrous oxide and ozone – comprise around 1% of the air.

This tiny amount has a very powerful effect, keeping the planet 33°C (59.4°F) warmer than it would be without them. (The main components of the atmosphere – nitrogen and oxygen – are not greenhouse gases, because they are virtually unaffected by long-wave, or infrared, radiation). This is the second piece of evidence: a provable mechanism by which energy can be trapped in the atmosphere.

For our next piece of evidence, we must look at the amount of CO2 in the air. We know from bubbles of air trapped in ice cores that before the industrial revolution, the amount of CO2 in the air was approximately 280 parts per million (ppm). In June 2013, the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Hawaii announced that, for the first time in thousands of years, the amount of CO2 in the air had gone up to 400ppm. That information gives us the next piece of evidence; CO2 has increased by nearly 43% in the last 150 years.

 

Atmospheric CO2 levels (Green is Law Dome ice core, Blue is Mauna Loa, Hawaii) and Cumulative CO2 emissions (DOE Data Explorer). While atmospheric CO2 levels are usually expressed in parts per million, here they are displayed as the amount of CO2 residing in the atmosphere in gigatonnes. CO2 emissions includes fossil fuel emissions, cement production and emissions from gas flaring.

The Smoking Gun

The final piece of evidence is ‘the smoking gun’, the proof that CO2 is causing the increases in temperature. CO2 traps energy at very specific wavelengths, while other greenhouse gases trap different wavelengths.  In physics, these wavelengths can be measured using a technique called spectroscopy. Here’s an example:

Spectrum of the greenhouse radiation measured at the surface. Greenhouse effect from water vapor is filtered out, showing the contributions of other greenhouse gases (Evans 2006).

The graph shows different wavelengths of energy, measured at the Earth’s surface. Among the spikes you can see energy being radiated back to Earth by ozone (O3), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20). But the spike for CO2 on the left dwarfs all the other greenhouse gases, and tells us something very important: most of the energy being trapped in the atmosphere corresponds exactly to the wavelength of energy captured by CO2.

Summing Up

Like a detective story, first you need a victim, in this case the planet Earth: more energy is remaining in the atmosphere.

Then you need a method, and ask how the energy could be made to remain. For that, you need a provable mechanism by which energy can be trapped in the atmosphere, and greenhouse gases provide that mechanism.

Next, you need a ‘motive’. Why has this happened? Because CO2 has increased by nearly 50% in the last 150 years and the increase is from burning fossil fuels.

And finally, the smoking gun, the evidence that proves ‘whodunit’: energy being trapped in the atmosphere corresponds exactly to the wavelengths of energy captured by CO2.

The last point is what places CO2 at the scene of the crime. The investigation by science builds up empirical evidence that proves, step by step, that man-made carbon dioxide is causing the Earth to warm up.

Basic rebuttal written by GPWayne

Addendum: the opening paragraph was added on 24th October 2013 in response to a criticism by Graeme, a participant on the Coursera Climate Literacy course. He pointed out that the rebuttal did not make explicit that it was man-made CO2 causing the warming, which the new paragraph makes clear. The statement "...and humans are adding more CO2 all the time" was also added to the 'what the science says section. 


Update July 2015:

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial

Last updated on 12 July 2015 by MichaelK. View Archives

Printable Version  |  Offline PDF Version  |  Link to this page

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Comments 1 to 25 out of 53:

  1. What speculative large scale effect could stem from more insulation with unchanged energy input? Could it be similar to the effect of more energy input with unchanged insulation? That insulation's extent has been verified. Changes over time of outgoing long wave radiation have been measured and shown to have decreased by the amount expected from increased GH gases: Harries et al, Increases in greenhouse forcing inferred from the outgoing longwave radiation spectra of the Earth in 1970 and 1997, Nature. 2001 Mar 15;410(6826):355-7 Abstract here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v410/n6826/abs/410355a0.html "The evolution of the Earth's climate has been extensively studied, and a strong link between increases in surface temperatures and greenhouse gases has been established. But this relationship is complicated by several feedback processes—most importantly the hydrological cycle—that are not well understood. Changes in the Earth's greenhouse effect can be detected from variations in the spectrum of outgoing longwave radiation, which is a measure of how the Earth cools to space and carries the imprint of the gases that are responsible for the greenhouse effect. Here we analyse the difference between the spectra of the outgoing longwave radiation of the Earth as measured by orbiting spacecraft in 1970 and 1997. We find differences in the spectra that point to long-term changes in atmospheric CH4, CO2 and O3 as well as CFC-11 and CFC-12. Our results provide direct experimental evidence for a significant increase in the Earth's greenhouse effect that is consistent with concerns over radiative forcing of climate." It essentially means that there is more heat retained in the system in the bands of the mentioned gases. It is claimed that this additional heat is warming the climate. Is that such a bold claim? Now, I'm sure Will Nitschke will find objections. This is where the logic breaks down. When ample evidence has been gathered and critics of a theory continue to refute it, because no amount of evidence can ever be satisfying and they will not state what kind of evidence would be so, or define it in a way that they know is impossible to reach. Indeed, there is no such thing as absolute certainty.
  2. "here is a clear empirical evidence that CO2 is rising, CO2 causes warming and the expected warming is observed." -Yes, Yes and No. CO2 is rising and we expect that to cause warming. But "the expected warming" is not observed. If by expected you mean that we have seen warming that yes, but not from CO2 alone. In fact, the IPCC uses "aerosols" to explain the cooling from 1944 to 1975, and kindly explain that we do not know much about the climatic impact of aerosols. So to say that the "expected" warming is observed is to mislead: the expected warming from KNOWN factors (i.e. such the IPCC says we know lots about) would have been a steady increase from 1944, interupted by a few volcanoes and La Ninas. And to answer your question: "What is causing the warming if not CO2?" The suns irradiance, cosmic rays, a positive PDO, and a range of other factors, along with CO2. "Why isn't rising CO2 causing the warming?" Well, IT DOES, albeit not all of it, but from there, it's a long way to prove that a warming of half a degree until now will translate into an additional 5 degrees to year 2100.
  3. The following is actually pertinant to all these threads but this one seems the closest. "[ Global Warming: Has the Climate Sensitivity Holy Grail Been Found? by Roy W. Spencer, Ph.D. updated 7:00 a.m. CDT, June 30, 2008 (The following is a simplified version of a paper entitled "Chaotic Radiative Forcing, Feedback Stripes, and the Overestimation of Climate Sensitivity" I submitted on June 25, 2008 for publication in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.) ABSTRACT: This article addresses new satellite and modeling evidence that previous satellite diagnoses of high climate sensitivity--which directly translate into predictions of dangerous levels of global warming--contain a large spurious bias. It is shown that those exaggerated estimates were the result of faulty assumptions regarding clouds when analyzing variations in average global temperature and average reflected sunlight off of the Earth. Specifically, it has been assumed (explicitly or implicitly) that, for global averages on time scales of three months or more, temperature variations cause clouds to change, but that cloud variations do not cause temperature to change. But when properly filtered, the satellite data reveal evidence of cloud variations indeed causing temperature changes, and that this source of natural climate variability biases the estimate of climate sensitivity in the direction of a very sensitive climate system. The new interpretation suggests a very low sensitivity. If the new sensitivity estimate is accurate, it would suggest only 0.5 deg. C of manmade warming by the year 2100. The new sensitivity estimate also suggests that warming over the last century can not be explained by human greenhouse gas emissions alone, but instead might require a mostly natural explanation. ]" Changing the sensitivity number does change ecery argument all at once.
  4. "Rising CO2 levels are based not on one station but over 300 stations in 66 countries (World Data Centre for Greenhouse Gases). " My count from the WDC site is 298 stations of which only 159 actually measure CO2. The others measure different gasses. Being imprecise simply gives the sceptics another rabbit trail to run down. Current models have a VERY GREAT problem with clouds; even with modern satellite imagery it is beyond our current capability to assess with any reasonable degree of accuracy cloud distribution and density and thus the effect on insolation.
  5. Well, Beck's analysis seems to disprove the base line data used to start the whole issue, so what does that do for the AGW theory?? http://www.biomind.de/nogreenhouse/daten/EE%2018-2_Beck.pdf Even if you put a higher anomaly factor in than Beck, you still end uf with substantially higher CO2 figures than were used to construct the AGW argument. It will be interesting to see the responses .....
  6. Re #11 A skeptic would easily recognise that Beck's analysis is nonsense! see, for example, post #172 here: http://www.skepticalscience.com/solar-activity-sunspots-global-warming.htm remember that this is a "skepticalscience" site...we should make at least a little effort to be skeptical!
  7. Let me see if I understand this. This seems to be the argument. First, CO2 levels are rising. Second, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Third, during the last 30 years, global temperatures have been rising. Fourth, the things that ordinary cause temperatures to rise -- such as increased solar activity -- are not causing the current rise in temperature. Therefore, increased C02 is causing global warming. Of these four points, I believe that no one disputes one and two. Yes, CO2 levels are rising. Yes, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I do not think anyone denies either of those two assertions. But, there are a number of points that I think an honest scientist would want to explore. How much is CO2 rising, compared to the past? Do we have more or less CO2 now than we did in various past times? When we put more CO2 into the air, what happens to it? Does it get absorbed by the ocean, or does it stay in the air forever? What other things in the atmosphere are increasing or decreasing? I would feel much more confidence in the global warming theory if they would address points of this sort, which seem like pretty obvious questions to me. But, for the moment, lets just say that points one and two are basically undisputed. I believe that is true. Point three is the pivot the argument. The whole theory stands or falls on it. It is basically saying that there is a huge, unexplained increase in global temperatures in the last 30 years, which we have to explain. But is that true? First off, during the last ten years, there has been no increase. Of course, one can say -- and it is true -- that a ten year period means little or nothing in climate science. But think about that. If ten years means nothing, why is 30 years of such huge importance? If the whole theory rests on 30 years, but 10 of those years are AWOL, how good is the theory? And how can we say that the usual suspects do not explain the increase, when there has been no increase for ten years? What we are basically talking about is a twenty year trend, which stopped ten years ago. So what? Excuse me, but I have read enough climate science to realize that 10 or 20 year trends do not mean much. Most climate cycles operate over 100s if not 1000s of years.
    Response: "CO2 is a greenhouse gas.  I do not think anyone denies either of those two assertions"

    Sadly, there are many who deny the assertion that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, even despite observations of an enhanced greenhouse effect. Much of the discussion on this website of late have been on that topic alone.

    "during the last ten years, there has been no increase"

    Statistically, this isn't true, the trend in global temperature has still been increasing. Don't fall into the trap of comparing single points in a noisy signal - that is not the way to determine a long term trend. More importantly, the physical reality is that the planet is still accumulating heat. There is still an energy imbalance. Satellites and ocean heat measurements find more energy is still coming in than going out.
  8. I think that this post was different in the past and included a list with some fingerprint evidence (rise of the tropopause, expansion of the hadley cell...) with links... Where can I find this?
    Response: Yes, sorry about removing that information. As I added in more info to this page, I simplified the presentation lest it get too long and unwieldy. So I've temporarily removed all the other bits and pieces until I get organised and restructure it to a subpage somewhere. In the meantime, here is other evidence of warming: Note - as you say, some of the evidence listed above are unique to CO2 warming - the carbon "fingerprint".
  9. Loads of thanks, and good new article! We have a rather good grasp of the current climate system. The only thing that has change enough to warm the planet is GHG (mainly CO2) and all the observations are consistent with that. Some people still insist that there might be some misterious unknown thing doing it (and some other unknown thing cancelling out the CO2 warming effect) even though there isn't any evedence at all. It seems incredibly twisted to me. It is false that there has been no warming during the last ten years. Why do you cherrypick CRU instead of GISS, Rick? Do you just choose the sources that fit your bias?: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/a-warming-pause/ What happens if you begin one year earlier or later? A remarkable change in your trend? That's why your 10-year trend is not significant, and that's why 30-year trends are significant, because they don't change much if you add or remove some years: http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/2009/01/results-on-deciding-trends.html Are short-term cooling trends unusual under the current global warming? No: http://tamino.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/breaking-records/ http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2009/2009GL037810.shtml If you want to disprove global warming just on a statistical basis you will need more than a statistically insignificant short-term cooling trend.
  10. Thanks for the thoughtful presentation of evidence in favor of AGW. I'm concerned with the logic of how you put your argument together on this page, however. Your first point is that CO2 is increasing. The second is that CO2 traps heat. OK so far. The third point is that the earth is warming. You lose me there. The reason we know that humans are causing the earth to warm is that the earth is warming? I just don't see how that logically follows. I'd really like to see a clear argument for the AGW hypothesis that separates evidence of warming from evidence for the cause of that warming. That's what I was hoping to find here, but did not.
    Response: The cause of global warming is outlined above in point 2: the enhanced greenhouse effect from increasing CO2. Point 3 (warming is happening) is the logical consequence of Points 1 (we're raising CO2) and 2 (CO2 traps heat). To accept the first two points, that human CO2 emissions are causing heat to be trapped, is to accept that humans are causing the planet to accumulate heat. With more heat in our climate, temperatures will rise.
  11. David Rourke, the first point is not simply that CO2 is rising. The point instead is that humans are causing the rise of CO2. Since that rise of CO2 increases heat retention, it does indeed follow that humans are causing a rise of heat retention via the mechanism of increasing CO2.
  12. Sorry if I seem dense. Allow me to make an analogy to evolutionary theory. It is observed that species change over time (evolution). Natural selection is a theory that explains how that happens. The fact of evolution doesn’t prove natural selection. Natural selection explains evolution. If evolution did not happen (species did not change over time) then natural selection would be in trouble, but that doesn’t mean that a scientist can say, “Look at how these species have changed. Natural selection is therefore proven!” Evolution is consistent with natural selection, but evolution doesn’t prove that the natural selection hypothesis is correct. Instead, we accept that evolution happens (based on considerable evidence) and compare different explanations for what causes it (natural selection vs. Lamarckism, for example). Natural selection makes many correct predictions, while Lamarckism makes many incorrect predictions. Therefore, natural selection is accepted as true (as true as anything in science). In the same manner, once we accept global warming, it does nothing to support AGW vs. any other explanation for increased global temperatures. What testable predictions does AGW make? What testable predictions do alternative theories (such as increased solar activity) make? How do those predictions hold up when compared with facts? That’s really the case that needs to be made here, I think.
    Response: I had hoped that I had made a clear case above not only for global warming, but more importantly, that humans are causing global warming. If humans are causing global warming, we expect to see an enhanced greenhouse effect. More specifically, we expect to see the enhanced greenhouse effect at the wavelengths that CO2 absorb energy. This has been observed both by satellite measurements observing less infrared radiation escaping to space and surface measurements observing more infrared radiation returning back to the Earth's surface.
  13. This web site and it's articles is the best (most thorough most civil, most compact, most interesting) I have ever come across. If we agree that human-caused CO2 has has caused the increase in global temps, the more difficult problem is what to do about it. Does anyone really think the answer is electric cars? More bumper stickers? Without hyper-analysing energy issues, it seems that the underlying belief is that we need to substitute non-Co2 releasing energy with non-CO2 producing energy. Is this even POSSIBLE on a global scale? And if so? Will the surge of population over the next hundred years erase those efforts? And, is there enough time? Even if our solutions were implemented on a a world-wide scale over the next 20 years, how long would it take for the volume of arctic ice to re-establish itself and confirm our "fix" has succeeded?
  14. oops, in the last commet the first mention of "non-CO2 releasing energy" should have been "CO2-releasing energy"
  15. thereisaidit, we already have the technology and it's improving rapidly; the only big question is time (or probably I should say the will to act). We will never see the arctic, or any other impact we already caused, recover. It's even worst, indeed; even if we act promptly we will see more degradation of our environment. We are not even thinking of turning back to the pre-industrial climate, we're only trying to avoid what is considered too dangerous to afford.
  16. I think the Skeptical Argument is improperly presented. It should rather be presented "There is no empirical evidence or proof that humans are [the primary causes of current global warming trends]. It's all based on theory and computer models.
    Response: Ideally, rather than use my own wording, I like to quote an excerpt from a skeptic article - usually one that sums up the argument succinctly and eloquently (lest I be accused of setting up a strawman argument). I'll get around to it for this argument sooner or later.
  17. More to the point, are there other, more prevalent sources of CO2 outside of industrial or non-natural based carbon emissions and further, are there other elements at play in increasing the global heat capacitance currently perceived?
  18. Re: #16 thereisaidit This isn't really skeptical statements i'm saying here but: I have two scenarios in my mind: 1) If renewable energy is to succeed there needs to be a massive price reduction in the price per kilowatt hour. My boss held up a $0.10AU coin and said that is the necessary goal for renewables to compete/ensure the economy can adjust. This site i've listed below has some figures though it might have company bias but as you can see in order for non CO2 producing forms of energy to flourish there needs to be something (ie.a heavy amount of research/investment etc) to get it there. http://www.coldenergy.com/difference.htm 2) This second scenario isn't so pretty. This addresses the population issue you raised. I heard an interview with Paul Ehrlich who is a Professor in population studies. He is the author of The Population Bomb back in 1967 has some very dire predictions about world population levels. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2009/2747139.htm On your point on the ice caps: This is something I don't know but even if we could magically turn off the "CO2 emissions switch" I would think that the Artic ice loss will continue ie no matter what we do now global warming is happening and it is only a case of damage control reducing the extent in the rise of average temperatures in the future.
  19. It is wonderful to find such a detailed debate on this important topic. Can you confirm that my understand, as outlined below, is correct, or at least not nonsense. As life on Earth evolved, the Earth’s atmosphere was slowly changed. The atmosphere changed quite profoundly once the process called photosynthesis evolved. Much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was sucked up by photosynthesis and transformed into oxygen and carbon. Carbon became the building material upon which life was based, and oxygen, as we all know, became essential for sustaining life. When a living thing died, the carbon that formed the building blocks of life was often reabsorbed by the soil. This fertilised the soil, making life even richer. Some of the carbon left when plant and animals died was subjected to enormous pressures, and over the aeons was turned to oil and coal. Life itself acted as means of storing carbon. In particular forests are like massive carbon storage facilities. Over millions of years, as life had the effect of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth cooled down. This was not a smooth process, and was subject to other variables. The question is this: by burning up carbon deposits that have stayed in the ground for aeons, and also through deforestation, is man reversing a process which took place over millions of years in a blink of the evolutionary eye.
  20. The section "CO Traps Heat" is suffering from a logical fallacy of Composition: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/composition.html The assertion is made that increasing CO2 and other GHG's absorb more long wave radiation and prevent it from escaping to space. This is well supported by Harries 2001 Figure 3C. Clearly assertion this is supported by both theory and measurement. The fallacy comes into play when applying this to the WHOLE of the outgoing long wave spectrum. Looking at Harries 2001 Figure 1B (not shown), the range 800-1000 cm-1 shows an increase in outgoing long wave that exceeds the decrease due to GHG's. This observation is also present in Griggs 2004 and Chen 2007. Harries 2001 attributes this increase over the range 800-1000 cm-1 to 'small residual ice crystals' not fully removed from the data due to field of view differences between the detectors. This assertion is not supported by the addition of the NASA AIRS satellite. Additionally, satellite measurements of total outgoing long wave radiation show an increasing trend with time (and CO2, although not causative). http://www.isprs.org/publications/related/ISRSE/html/papers/332.pdf This is critical because it calls into question the causative relationship between "CO2 traps heat" and "Our planet is accumulating heat" in the block diagram. This relationship must be solid if the alarming predictions of the climate science community are to be believed and the mitigation of climate change can be achieved through CO2 emission reduction.
  21. What are peoples thoughts on Gerlich & Tscheuschner's paper "Falsification Of The Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within The Frame Of Physics"? http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0707/0707.1161v4.pdf A quick rundown can be found here: http://climaterealists.com/index.php?id=4992
  22. samantha, it's a more than two years old story and has been refuted so many times that there should be no need to pull it back. Give a quick look here and at the links provided.
  23. Riccardo Thanks for the link. I will look over it. BTW. The original paper is two years old, this paper is Jan2009.
  24. samantha, it's basically the same, they just found it hard to get it through peer review.
  25. I have a question. I live in West Texas where just a few generations ago fires used to burn up our whole world. Before the White Europeans stole the land from my ancestors the prairies were purified and cleansed of brush and trees by fires Native Peoples and lighting set. Millions of acers burned uncontrolled every time it turned off dry and especially after a wet year when we grew a lot of grass. Since hiways, roads, cultivated lands stop wildfires today not much of the prairies burn anymore. In fact the pasture land is not grass it is trees, cactus and brush. I still hear on the news of concern about co2 and other gasses wildfires emmitt into the sky. So how can the nominal co2 emissions of industry cause the earth to warm when since fires have always been a part of the enviornment? Ranger Texas

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