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Jan 11, 2022

Axios Generate

☕️ Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,237 words, 5 minutes.

🎶 Happy birthday (a day late) to Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, which has today's exquisite intro tune...

1 big thing: A banner year for billion-dollar disasters
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Data: NOAA and Climate Central; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

In 2021, the contiguous U.S. saw its second-highest number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Andrew writes.

Why it matters: The extreme events of 2021 affected the public health of tens of millions of Americans, destroyed homes and upended livelihoods. At least 688 people perished in these disasters, which demonstrated the escalating human and financial costs of global warming.

The big picture: During 2021, the contiguous U.S. average temperature was 2.5°F above the 20th-century average, which ranked as the fourth warmest year in 127 years of record-keeping.

  • The Lower 48 states also had its warmest December on record, NOAA found, with an average temperature that was a staggering 6.7°F above normal.
  • The warmth helped drive two unprecedented December billion-dollar events.

Details: Extreme weather, supercharged by climate change, was relentless in 2021, with the tally added to as late as Dec. 30. The total of 20 such events was second only to the 22 billion-dollar disasters that occurred in 2020.

  • The cost of the 2021 disasters was higher than in the 2020 record year, and so was the death toll.
  • Each of the top five years on NOAA's billion-dollar disasters list, which dates back to 1980, have occurred since 2011, the agency found.
  • The roster of billion-dollar events in 2021 includes the Texas deep freeze, western wildfires (including the Colorado wildfires on Dec. 30), the Pacific Northwest heat wave, four landfalling tropical cyclones, and eight severe weather events.
  • The severe weather events included the unusual December derecho in the Midwest, which set a record for the highest number of hurricane-force wind reports in the U.S. on a single day.

Between the lines: Long-term trends in billion-dollar disasters show an increase over time, which is related in part to climate change's role in making extreme events, such as heat waves and wildfires, more severe.

  • But global warming is unlikely to be causing the entire uptick. Instead, a growing, sprawling population is also to blame.
  • Since NOAA's billion-dollar event database began 42 years ago, the country has seen about $2 trillion in damages, with more than 15,000 fatalities. The 2010s brought costs of $858.4 billion, compared to just $187.2 billion during the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation.

What they're saying: "The amplified effects of climate change on individual events are becoming more evident and is occurring in tandem with a boom in population and 'stuff' in highly vulnerable areas," said Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at Aon, in an email.

  • "If the last 10 to 20 years have taught us anything, it’s that we can no longer build to meet the climate of yesterday."
2. The race for raw materials

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A bunch of new developments highlight a wider trend: intensifying efforts by governments and corporations to secure key minerals needed for electric cars and other clean energy tech, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Tesla and Talon Metals announced a deal yesterday to supply the electric automaker with at least 75,000 metric tons of nickel concentrates from Talon's planned mine in Minnesota. The Star Tribune has details.

  • Separately, mining giant BHP said that it's investing $100 million in a major project in Tanzania for mining nickel, a key material for vehicle batteries and energy storage projects. The FT has more.
  • Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports: "France is aiming to raise 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) to help secure enough supply of metals for industries like battery manufacturing as prices of raw materials skyrocket."
  • Back in the U.S., California Gov. Gavin Newsom's just-proposed budget plan aims to help spur the development of lithium deposits in the Salton Sea area.

Why it matters: A global transition to cleaner mobility and power sources is slated to bring soaring demand for materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt, rare earth minerals and more.

Catch up fast: These are just the latest in a suite of plans among automakers, battery companies and others to lock down supplies of critical materials for electric vehicle components.

To take just one example, General Motors last month announced two deals aimed at securing magnets and their raw material for EV motors.

Go deeper: The supply crunch that could slow the climate fight

3. Putin's (natural) gaslighting of Europe

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images

European natural gas prices continue to go nuts, as the market has become a theater in the growing conflict between Russia and the West, Axios' Matt Phillips writes.

Why it matters: Russia is increasingly seen as treating its energy assets as political tools, rather than mere sources of revenue, upending a market once driven largely by basic questions of supply and demand.

For now, that geopolitical game of chess is squeezing the balance sheets of Europe's energy companies and ordinary consumers.

  • "One thing [President Vladimir] Putin does very well, he uses what looks like market activity for geopolitical purposes," Anna Mikulska, a fellow at the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University, tells Axios.

Read the whole story.

4. NASA names new senior climate official

Katherine Calvin. Photo courtesy of NASA

NASA administrator Bill Nelson has appointed Katherine Calvin as the agency's new chief scientist and senior climate adviser, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: These are two top science policy positions at NASA.

Calvin, whose appointment was announced yesterday, will be tasked with helping to guide the agency's climate-related programs along with its broader scientific research, including making recommendations on upcoming missions.

She had been serving as an Earth scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland, which is run by the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Catch up fast: Gavin Schmidt, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, had been filling the newly created climate role in an acting capacity.

5. Catch up fast on policy: White House and California

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Oil-and-gas: "President Joe Biden's administration intends to reverse a last-minute decision by the previous administration to open up 7mn acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) to oil and gas development." (Argus Media)

Climate change: "Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending $22 billion on climate, water and wildfire initiatives Monday — and moved to reassert California’s status as an international leader on global warming and other environmental issues." (Sacramento Bee)

6. Inside the revival of DOE's loan program

🎧 The new episode of the podcast Catalyst goes deep on first financing from DOE's loan office under the Biden administration and what's next for the program that was largely dormant in the Trump era, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: The office recently extended a conditional $1 billion loan guarantee for Monolith, a Nebraska company, for a project that converts natural gas into hydrogen and carbon black.

The latter is a product used in tires and other materials that have traditionally been made with an emissions- and pollution-intensive process.

Why it matters: Jigar Shah, who heads the DOE office, and Monolith CEO Rob Hanson explain why they see the project as such an innovative venture.

The CO2 capture element is "almost switching carbon capture on its head," Hanson notes.

"Instead of ending up with something that's a waste product, CO2, that's super hard to deal with if you want to sequester it permanently or find some other use so it doesn't just end up back in the atmosphere, you replace that with something that has a ton of value," Hanson says.

The big picture: The loan office has over $40 billion worth of financing authority it aims to use for a variety of commercial-scale clean energy projects. It's weighing dozens of applications.

Shah tells Catalyst that he's expecting to finance an "even split" between the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program and other projects.

Listen to the whole thing.