🌎 #273: Where Batteries Come From

Quinn Emmett
April 22, 2022
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Welcome back, Shit Givers, and Happy Earth Day!

In celebration of Earth Day, a wildly generous donor has offered to cover half the cost of an annual Membership for 100 of you. I told them that's ridiculous, they wouldn't listen, so here we are.

You can get the 50% annual discount right here until Sunday (or until 100 of you sign up)!

This Week, Summarized:

  • Should we mine the ocean?
  • Mask mandates are over, what else?
  • Split up the FDA
  • Alzheimer's trials are very white
  • Ronan Farrow comes for Pegasus spyware

Reminder: You can read this issue on the website, or you can 🎧 listen to it on the podcast (shortly).

🕛 Reading Time: 11 minutes

CLIMATE CHANGE

Ocean

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Mining for minerals

The news: Last week I shared the (fantastic) news that 10% of the globe's power came from wind and solar in 2021.

The only way forward is up:

  • The CEO of the world's third-biggest supplier of solar panels (so only marginally biased) said solar may generate half the world's power by 2050
  • China may install more wind and solar this year than the rest of the world did combined in 2020
  • California -- bellwether for the United States -- may prohibit new gas or diesel cars by 2035
  • Amid drastically increased competition in 2022 and beyond, Tesla blew away expectations in the last quarter
  • The IPCC reaffirmed wind and solar as the most impactful and cost-effective ways to decarbonize

We have succeeded -- I understand if this word is unfamiliar to you -- in bending the curve of global warming outcomes significantly away from "totally fucked", and a new paper in Nature revealed that if every country fulfills their current climate commitments, we could stay under 2C.

Understand it: As those ever-present stoics are famous for saying -- the obstacle is the way.

If wind, solar, and batteries are the necessary infrastructure of the future (cough nuclear), the raw materials to build them -- and the economies and geopolitics that profit and benefit from them -- will rewrite everything we know.

There's just one issue:

"Put very simply, all the world’s (battery) cell production combined represents well under 10% of what we will need in 10 years,” Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe told reporters, according to the WSJ. “Meaning, 90% to 95% of the supply chain does not exist."

And that supply chain certainly doesn't exist in the US.

In response, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to jumpstart mining, processing, and recycling of lithium, cobalt, manganese, and more, and the Department of Energy's Loan Program Office came back to life, throwing cash at projects like graphite anode production (like they did with Tesla a decade ago).

But however admirable (it's admirable!), there are immovable objects (70% of the world's cobalt has come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most of the world's raw graphite is in China, etc), plus, building a new heavy industry from, well, scratch will take years to pay off, and the demand is now (and projected to grow 600% before 2040).

Just mining this stuff -- wherever it comes from -- will require enormous labor, energy, and water.

Some sepia-colored backstory: Historically, most of our energy is used up as it's burned, and whatever storage we've got is in reservoirs.

But reservoirs are running out of water, and new ones are hard to locate and expensive as hell, so we're exploring options like literally lifting and putting down heavy blocks, pumping water underground and letting Earth squeeze it back up like tube of toothpaste (or, um, fracking), and of course, batteries.

Batteries may be more immediately scalable, but we need so, so many of them, and the materials mentioned above are located not only in geopolitical hot zones, but also at the bottom of the ocean.

Helpful: The UN-sponsored organization responsible for regulating ocean mining has been described as unfit and conflicted by its own previous top environmental official.

And I quote: "It is like to ask the wolf to take care of the sheep."

Friend, the ocean is swell (see what I did there?) and so I probably don't have to tell you a lot of reasonable folks argue we shouldn't drill there anymore than we do.

On the other hand, as much as I love wind and solar, there's no doubt short and long-term storage at consumer and industrial scales will be required to expand them as necessary to prevent the bad place.

The energy transition is going to be world-changing, and messy. Stay tuned.

⚡️Action Step: I sometimes feel like the whole "how to keep temps under 2C" question can feel a little theoretical (and confusing, and philosophical). The Financial Times designed a game where you can try to get the world to net zero by 2050. Play it, share it, talk about it.

COVID

Open windows

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Vaccine equity update: Just 15.2% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, and 35% of people worldwide have received zero doses.

What comes after masks?

The news: Federal mask mandates on public transportation in the United States are no more (well, for now).

I'm not going to re-hash the whole thing, but to sum: A Trump-appointed, "unqualified" judge (more on him here) said the mandates were a CDC overreach, and wiped them out.

Here's what I want to focus on: everything else.

Masks matter, of course. They remain the easiest and most cost-effective mechanism for protection, and if there's anywhere they should still be required, it's public transportation -- a collection of venues more crucial than, say, restaurants, some of which are far more likely to be used by people who cannot afford to isolate themselves in a private car.

Billions of folks like you and me have used masks to protect ourselves and others, especially the elderly and immunocompromised. But nothing in isolation.

Understand it: We're so damn busy making this pandemic your problem instead of our problem that we haven't mourned the millions that have died, helped those who were sick, recover, or left behind, nor tackled the underlying factors that made the virus so deadly (racism, poverty, hubris, Facebook), or acknowledged we're in the middle of perhaps the most voluminous disabling event of our time.

We are so ready to move on (and often understandably so) that we refuse to acknowledge that this moment is simply the end of the beginning.

Mask mandates are gone. Let's go to work taking care of one another and improving our baseline, so we're better prepared on the daily, and for the next superspreader virus. The opportunities for you to drive change here are enormous.

Let's make sure people who get sick have immediate access to treatments like Paxlovid.

Let's mandate improved ventilation in offices and schools. The funding is already there, as the "American Rescue Plan Act provides $122 billion for ventilation inspections and upgrades in schools, as well as $350 billion to state and local governments for a range of community-level pandemic recovery efforts, including ventilation and filtration." But all of that action is voluntary, friends.

Let's (finally) scale germicidal ultraviolet light: we can train folks to install these units, and subsidize them to reduce the prevalence of all viruses.

Let's make childhood COVID vaccines mandatory for school, like so many others.

Let's create entirely new fields of study around Long COVID and COVID-related heart inflammation.

Let's devise a vast and equitable new mental health support structure for frontline workers, and families and children who've lost loved ones and caregivers.

Let's build a huge new wastewater detection system and dynamic dashboards to provide baseline and peak viral indicators for every municipality on the planet.

And of course let's eliminate air pollution, the ultimate 80/20 move, reducing underlying health conditions that crush lives, incomes, and economies on their own, and contribute to higher mortality rates when new viruses come along.

Like climate, we have virtually every tool we need. We just have to decide to use them. Where can you contribute?

⚡️Action Step: Bookmark these, if you haven't already: COVID-19 Therapeutics Locator for when you or co-workers get sick, and Project N95 for the best masks for you and everyone around you.

INI Membership 50% off

FOOD & WATER

Spinach

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Split up the FDA

The news: In March, I wrote "There's another 5000 words to write about how one agency, the FDA, regulates both nutrition labels and COVID tests."

Reader: Neither is going well.

This month, and in an era where trust in institutions is "lagging", Helena Bottemiller Evich and Politico published a brutal investigation where they found that the FDA -- despite sweeping legislation during the Obama days -- doesn't really regulate food quite as much as you'd hope, repeatedly failing to take action on safety and health issues from spinach to water to diets to baby food and of course, everyone's favorite forever chemicals.

Understand it: The FDA actually got a little bit done during the Obama years. We finally got "Added Sugars" on re-design nutrition labels, a ban on trans fat, and calories on menus at your favorite chopped salad joint. That's great!

But this is now.

I encourage you to read Helena's entire piece (and that's today's Action Step), but some key takeaways include an agency setup to fail, structurally (FDA commissioners usually come from the medical side); having had five commissioners in the past three years -- three relatively tense years -- most of whom weren't even permanent; a Senate that won't confirm anyone, at whatever cost, and sucks, frankly; and a real lack of internal interest in taking on the enormously influential food lobby.

There's a lot coming down the pipe, food-wise. Responding more appropriately to recalls is one thing, but our crops and farmers are increasingly threatened by floods and drought, nutritious food is unaffordable for many and hard to access, and many of the US's underlying diseases and health outcomes are driven by monocrops and the western diet.

So we need the FDA. We need them to be way more effective, and quickly, more proactive, and nimble. But this isn't cutting it, so we need a new food agency.

I am nowhere near the first to suggest a new agency not overwhelmed by drugs, run by someone who knows food, who understands climate, and diet, who isn't afraid to take on the farm lobby and packaged food industry, to stand up for us. But it's clear pressure to change will have to come from the outside, like you.

⚡️Action Step: Read Helena's excellent work here, and give her a follow on Twitter here. More to come.

HEALTH & BIO

Brain

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Alzheimer's when you're black

The news: Black people are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as white people, but represent only 2% of people in clinical trials (for context, almost 10% of Americans over 65 are Black).

Understand it: It's not just Alzheimer's, and it's not just clinical trials. As I've written about before and covered in the podcast here and here, among others, just 5% of US doctors are Black, and even fewer nurses (more on nurses here).

"In a study of more than 1.8 million older people treated at Veterans Health Administration medical centers, Black veterans were 54% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia over about 10 years than White veterans, while Hispanic patients were 92% more likely to develop dementia

Understand it's not only marginalized people at risk, here. For a disease like Alzheimer's that are we barely understand, you'd think testing would include the widest variety of samples.

Now forget for a moment whether Alzheimer's drugs even work (Aduhelm), for anyone. How do we know these drugs are even safe for marginalized populations, if they weren't involved in trials? We don't, and that's partly because Black and Brown people don't have equitable healthcare access to even get tested for diseases like Alzheimer's.

And if they do have access, they are often ignored by doctors that don't look like them.

And if by some miracle they do manage to get tested by those doctors, they over-index on preexisting conditions that currently exclude them from trials.

We can do drastically better here with relatively little effort, such as federally funded Alzheimer’s research centers areas with higher concentrations of underrepresented (marginalized) populations.

⚡️Action Step: Learn about and support the UsAgainstAlzheimer's Center for Brain Health Equity campaign here.

BEEP BOOP

Pegasus

Not the right Pegasus, clearly

Pegasus is everywhere

The news: It's not news that authoritarian governments worldwide have been using the NSO Group's "Pegasus" spyware to spy on enemies both foreign and domestic, and it's not news that those same governments will sometimes use what they learn to conduct physical violence and even murder.

What made news this week was Ronan Farrow's two-years-in-the-making exposé of how wide Pegasus really runs, how dangerously unregulated the entire industry is, and how Big Tech is trying and often failing to successfully fight back:

"There is evidence that Pegasus is being used in at least forty-five countries, and it and similar tools have been purchased by law-enforcement agencies in the United States and across Europe. Cristin Flynn Goodwin, a Microsoft executive who has led the company’s efforts to fight spyware, told me, “The big, dirty secret is that governments are buying this stuff—not just authoritarian governments but all types of governments.”

Understand it: This isn't the New Yorker so I'm not going to excerpt every juicy bit but understand this: Microsoft, Google, and Apple, among others, are throwing millions at  bug bounties and "white hat" (good) hackers, and it's not enough.

On the other hand, these are among the biggest and most profitable companies to ever exist on planet Earth, so if Pegasus is truly as invasive and sometimes even as deadly as described, and their software is the entry point -- it's time to pay much, much more.

⚡️Action Step: Instead of legislation, we're getting educated this week, because we simply don't talk enough about how prevalent this all is. Read the piece, and discuss.

10 THINGS FROM MY NOTEBOOK

  • Pregnant people at greater risk in wildfire states
  • Barack Obama is taking on disinformation
  • Where California is rising -- and sinking
  • We may be nearing methane leak regulations
  • Five species of bacteria linked to prostate cancer, but how?
  • India is exceptionally hot
  • The EPA is probing racism complaints in Cancer Alley, which feels correct
  • Link will help you find your next (or first) EV
  • Biden revived the climate law forcing environmental review of federal infrastructure projects
  • And huge congrats to the 2022 Covering Climate Now Journalism Award Finalists!

Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit.

Have a great Earth Day weekend.

-- Quinn

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