Chicago schools reopen this week. But the fight reflects a nationwide struggle

Published January 11, 2022 at 8:27 AM EST
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters participate in a car caravan around City Hall to protest against in-person learning in Chicago public schools on Monday in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters participate in a car caravan around City Hall to protest against in-person learning in Chicago public schools on Monday in Chicago.

Good morning,

Here are the top stories we're following today:

Chicago schools agreement: The city's public school system is set to resume classes on Wednesday after reaching a deal with the teachers union late Monday.

Cost of climate disasters: The U.S. had 20 weather and climate disasters that each cost at least $1 billion in 2021, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Voting rights pivot: President Biden is set to give a big address on voting rights in Atlanta today. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, one of the champions of voting rights legislation, wants Biden to "stay on course" and show his strong intentions on the issue.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, how Australians are reacting to tennis star Novak Djokovic's attempt to play at the Australian Open with a COVID-19 vaccine exemption.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark, Dana Farrington and Danny Nett)

Texting

Why one Google exec wants Apple to end the blue/green messaging divide

Posted January 11, 2022 at 11:55 AM EST
An attendee looks at a new iPhone X during an Apple special event on the Apple Park campus on Sept. 12, 2017 in Cupertino, Calif.
Justin Sullivan
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Getty Images North America
A Wall Street Journal report last weekend discussed how the blue/green divide -- the "dread" of the green bubble among teens -- has given Apple an advantage.

A top Google executive is calling out Apple for using "bullying" and "peer pressure" to sell its products, saying the company has essentially split iPhone and Android users into two categories -- Team Green and Team Blue.

Among iPhone users, text message exchanges appear blue. But when an Android user messages an iPhone user, the Android user’s messages appear green. In a text thread full of both Apple and Android users, the group chat can get awkward.

After a Wall Street Journal report last weekend on the blue/green divide’s role in Apple’s success and the “dread” of the green bubble among teens, Google Senior Vice President Hiroshi Lockheimer called out Apple for the tactic on Twitter.

“Apple’s iMessage lock-in is a documented strategy. Using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products is disingenuous for a company that has humanity and equity as a core part of its marketing. The standards exist today to fix this,” Lockheimer said in a tweet.

In a follow-up Twitter thread on Monday, Lockheimer clarified that Google is not asking Apple to create iMessage for Android. Rather, Google would like to see Apple support RCS — a protocol designed to replace SMS messaging.

RCS is bigger than the blue/green divide, according to Lockheimer, who argues that if Apple adopted RCS, there wouldn't be such glaring compatibility issues between iPhone and Android users. Using RCS allows users to fallback on phone number-based messaging, Lockheimer tweeted. If Apple supported RCS, Apple and Android users would both benefit, he wrote. RCS would improve privacy for Apple users, he tweeted.

Apple is “holding back the industry and holding back the user experience” for Android and Apple users by not supporting RCS, Lockheimer added in a tweet.

Apple did not immediately respond to request for comment.

World

Kazakhstan’s ambassador says Russian-led troops will leave once the security situation is stabilized

Posted January 11, 2022 at 11:33 AM EST
In this handout photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers guard an area in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday.
AP
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Russian Defense Ministry Press Service
Forces that are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization guard an area in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday.

Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the U.S., Yerzhan Ashikbayev, tells NPR that Russian troops called in to his country to help it regain control from anti-government protesters will exit once the Central Asian nation returns to normal.

Speaking on Morning Edition, Ashikbayev said, “As soon as the situation is stabilized, they will immediately leave.” The Russian-led force is from the NATO-like Collective Security Treaty Organization, which also involves forces from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In an apparent contradiction, however, he also said that “the government is in full control of the situation on the ground in all of the cities."

On New Year’s Day, Kazakhstan lifted a cap on the cost to consumers of liquefied petroleum gas, similar to propane, which most people use to fuel their vehicles. The price of LPG shot up, sparking protests that began peacefully but turned violent.

Ashikbayev, speaking with host Rachel Martin, called the perpetrators of the violence “terrorists,” reflecting the way the Kazak government has characterized them since the start of the unrest.

Last week, as the protests spread despite a government decision to reinstate its LPG price cap, the CSTO force deployed to the country on a request from embattled President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a warning to Kazakhstan’s government that a “lesson of history” was that “once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”

Tokayev took over in the former Soviet republic in 2019 after Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for three decades, stepped down. Although Nazarbayev, now 81, relinquished the top post, he has continued to wield power from behind the scenes, observers say. Amid the growing unrest, however, Tokayev dismissed Nazarbayev from the powerful chairmanship of the country’s security council.

Ashikbayev said he didn’t believe speculation that Nazarbayev is stoking the unrest for his own political motives.

“I don’t have such reasons to believe. I don’t see any grounds for such an action,” he told NPR.

“By stepping down and transferring powers of the head of (the) security council, [Nazarbayev] effectively completed the transfer of power to … President Tokayev,” he said.

Fish out of water

Israeli scientists have trained goldfish to drive, in a scene out of a Dr. Seuss book

Posted January 11, 2022 at 11:05 AM EST

Picture this: A goldfish swimming in a square tank on wheels as it rolls deliberately from one side of a room to the other.

It's not a scene from a children's book or a futuristic movie. It's an animal behavior experiment at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where researchers have successfully trained several goldfish to operate robotic vehicles in an effort to explore whether their species is capable of navigating on land.

And it turns out they just might be, according to findings published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

"The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment," said Shachar Givon, a Ph.D. student and one of the paper's authors. "Second, it shows that goldfish have the cognitive ability to learn a complex task in an environment completely unlike the one they evolved in. As anyone who has tried to learn how to ride a bike or to drive a car knows, it is challenging at first."

The team set out to explore whether animals' innate navigational abilities are universal or restricted to their natural environments, the scientists explained in a press release.

"It goes without saying that fish, in general, are not naturally equipped to explore terrestrial environments," the study cautions.

To get around this obstacle, researchers created the "fish operated vehicle," a set of wheels under the goldfish tank that uses an intricate camera system to record and translate a fish's movements into navigational directions. The FOV changes its position based on the fish's movement characteristics, location and orientation in the water tank.

Researchers tasked six goldfish with "driving" the vehicle toward a visual target — a colorful mark on the wall of the experiment room — visible through the clear sides of the tank.

Like any would-be driver, the fish started off with lessons. The researchers tested whether the fish could drive toward the target in return for a food pellet. They conducted multiple 30-minute sessions to see how many times each fish reached the target, how long each drive took and the distance they traveled each time.

After a few days of training, the fish were able to navigate to the target — even if they hit a wall along the way or started their drive from a new location. Notably, they weren't fooled by decoy targets set out by the researchers, either. Here's what that looked like.

"The findings ... suggest that the way space is represented in the fish brain and the strategies it uses may be as successful in a terrestrial environment as they are in an aquatic one," the study concludes. "This hints at universality in the way space is represented across environments."

Still, scientists say more research is needed to extend these findings to more complex scenery, like open terrestrial environments. And they say future studies should test this methodology on land animals in aquatic environments "to reach more decisive conclusions."

It appears this study was not the first or last of its kind. As the authors note, rodents, dogs and even other fish have taken the wheel in previous experiments.

Vaccine Mandates

United CEO estimates vaccine requirement has saved 8 to 10 employees' lives

Posted January 11, 2022 at 10:55 AM EST

None of United Airlines' vaccinated employees are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, CEO Scott Kirby shared in a note to all United employees on Tuesday.

As the omicron variant spreads rapidly, 3,000 United employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but none are currently in the hospital — proof that the vaccine requirements can save lives, the CEO said.

"Prior to our vaccine requirement, tragically, more than one United employee on average *per week* was dying from COVID. But we’ve now gone eight straight weeks with zero COVID-related deaths among our vaccinated employees," Kirby said in the letter.

He estimates that the lives of eight to 10 United employees have been saved because of the company's vaccine requirement.

"In dealing with COVID, zero is the word that matters — zero deaths and zero hospitalizations for vaccinated employees. And while I know that some people still disagree with our policy, United is proving that requiring the vaccine is the right thing to do because it saves lives," Kirby said.

Video

Ostriches are on the loose in a city in southern China

Posted January 11, 2022 at 10:45 AM EST

Dozens of ostriches raced through streets after escaping from a farm in southern China. The fugitives were filmed in the city of Chongzuo in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Saturday.

The group of more than 80 ostriches reportedly ran away from a nearby farm, according to CNN, after the employee forgot to close the gate of their pen.

The biggest ostrich was more than 220 pounds, and they range in value from about $315 to $630, depending on how long they were raised. Residents and police helped find the ostriches, but around 20 ostriches are still missing.

3 companies recall in-home elevators over a potentially deadly risk to kids

Posted January 11, 2022 at 10:30 AM EST
A graphic shows how a child can get trapped in the small space between a residential elevator car door and the exterior landing door.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
A graphic shows how a child can get trapped in the small space between a residential elevator car door and the exterior landing door.

Three companies that sell in-home elevators have announced voluntary recalls over concerns that children could become trapped inside and face serious injury or death, federal regulators announced Tuesday.

Bella Elevator, Inclinator Company of America and Savaria Corporation recalled about 69,000 elevators that pose a risk of pinning children between the elevator car door and the exterior landing door. Children trapped in the gap between the doors could be hurt or killed when the elevator car moves.

The companies say they’ll provide customers with free “space guards,” which attach to the exterior landing door and fill the gap between the door and the elevator.

“Today’s announcement also reflects our three companies’ firm, continued commitment to working with our installer partners so that future residential elevators will be installed consistent with voluntary safety standards to eliminate hazardous gaps between home elevator car doors or gates and hoistway doors,” the companies said in a joint statement.

The announcement was made in conjunction with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which urged consumers to keep young children away from the recalled elevators.

“This is an important step that will prevent further harm from potentially tens of thousands of residential elevators,” CPSC chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric said in a statement.

There were no injuries or deaths reported involving the three companies’ products, but there have been fatal accidents linked to residential elevators. In July, a boy died in a North Carolina vacation rental after being trapped in the home’s elevator.

The CPSC hasn’t been able to reach agreements with all of the residential elevator companies over the hazard, Hoehn-Saric said. It has even sued another company, alleging that some of its residential elevator models were installed with a hazardous gap between the two doors.

“As long as this hazard persists, I am committed to continuing this work and preventing future entrapment injuries and deaths,” Hoehn-Saric said.

Law

A court upheld the firing of 2 LAPD officers for ignoring a call to play Pokémon Go

Posted January 11, 2022 at 10:16 AM EST
A phone screen showing the Pokemon Go app.
Nicolas Maeterlinck
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AFP via Getty Images
Two former LAPD officers had tried to appeal their firing after being caught going on a Pokémon hunt rather than responding to a robbery.

An appeals court in California has upheld the firing of two former Los Angeles Police Department officers for playing Pokémon Go rather than responding to a nearby robbery.

Louis Lozano and Eric Mitchell, who were fired after 2017 incident, had argued that the city violated the law by using their police car's digital in-car video system recording as evidence and by denying them protections of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act. A California appellate court denied their petition for reinstatement in a 32-page decision filed on Friday.

"A board of rights found petitioners guilty on multiple counts of misconduct, based in part on a digital in-car video system (DICVS) recording that captured petitioners willfully abdicating their duty to assist a commanding officer’s response to a robbery in progress and playing a Pokémon mobile phone game while on duty," the document reads, before outlining the events of April 15, 2017, and the investigation that followed.

According to the court filing, Lozano and Mitchell ignored a call requesting backup to respond to a robbery at a nearby Macy's, then set off in pursuit of a "Snorlax" and spent the next 20 minutes driving to various locations where the virtual creatures were shown on their maps. They were accused of later making false statements about their lack of response to the call and their involvement with Pokémon Go. For example, they said that they were only talking about the augmented-reality game (which became a worldwide craze for about a year) rather than actually playing it.

The officers were charged with multiple counts of on-duty misconduct: failing to respond to a robbery-in-progress call, making misleading statements to their commander when asked why they did not hear the radio, failing to respond over the radio when their unit was called during the robbery, failing to handle an assigned radio call, playing Pokémon Go while on patrol in their vehicle and making false statements to a detective during a complaint investigation. They pleaded guilty to the first and third counts, and not guilty to the rest.

The officers' lawyer, Greg Yacoubian, told NPR over email that his clients are "understandably disappointed with the opinion" and that his team is "evaluating how best to proceed."

"This case matters because is important to hold the Department accountable regarding its compliance with its own rules and policies," he wrote. "Additionally, it's important that the Department be held accountable to adhere to the law with regard to how it conducts its internal investigations. The ends do not justify the means."

Coronavirus

In-person classes in Chicago are set to resume Wednesday with a deal on safety measures

Posted January 11, 2022 at 10:04 AM EST
A glass door reading "Chicago Public Schools". It has the images of a young child with a backpack, and older child with a backpack and a person holding a diploma in a cap and gown.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images North America
Over 300,000 students in the Chicago school district -- the nation's third-largest -- missed classes due to the standoff over COVID safety.

Students are expected to be back in classrooms on Wednesday in Chicago after five days of canceled classes due to a bitter dispute between the teachers union and city officials.

The two groups spent days at the bargaining table in a standoff over COVID-19 safety, causing 300,000 students in the nation's third-largest school district to miss classes. The Chicago Teachers Union’s elected House of Delegates voted Monday to suspend remote work action while rank-and-file union members vote on a proposed COVID-19 safety agreement later this week.

The stalemate was tense. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the union action an illegal walkout and said that teachers "abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families." Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the mayor is "unfit to lead this city and she is on a one-woman kamikaze mission to destroy our public schools.”

The sides reached an agreement Monday for students to return to in-person learning with added safety measures. However, the safety agreement didn't include all of the provisions the union was fighting for. New protections include a metric to move individual schools to remote learning if a certain amount of staff or students are quarantined for COVID-19, a step the union has long called for.

The union's pressure also brought awareness to the school district's faulty testing program, which struggled with low participation and a shortage of tests, WBEZ's Sarah Karp reports. In response, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state was stepping in to help the school system get more tests.

When it comes to testing, under the new agreement, 10% of students will be randomly selected and tested, according to WBEZ. Lightfoot strongly opposed the union's request for a system where students are automatically enrolled and can be opted out from testing by their parents.

The union voted last week to refuse in-person work until Jan.18 to push the district to adopt stricter COVID-19 precautions. In response, the school district locked teachers out of their computer accounts and canceled classes rather than begin virtual teaching. Lightfoot vigorously opposed a return to remote learning and argued added safety measures weren't necessary despite the omicron variant's surge.

The union said teachers don't like remote learning either, but insufficient COVID-precautions in the schools were putting staff and students at risk.

Sarah Karp and the team at member station WBEZ in Chicago have more here.

Space

NASA now believes the James Webb Space Telescope has enough fuel to last 20 years

Posted January 11, 2022 at 9:55 AM EST
This March 5, 2020 photo made availalble by NASA shows the main mirror assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope during testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, Calif. Webb will attempt to look back in time 13.7 billion years, a mere 100 million years after the universe-forming Big Bang as the original stars were forming. (Chris Gunn/NASA via AP)
Chris Gunn/AP
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NASA
The efficiency of deploying the James Webb telescope's mirrors and sunshield and other initial maneuvers has left it with enough fuel to likely double its trip through the cosmos.

NASA had originally said that the James Webb Space Telescope would have enough fuel to keep making observations for five to 10 years, but agency officials now say it could go twice that long.

At a news conference on Saturday to provide details on the successful deployment of the observatory’s 21-foot primary mirror, NASA announced that thanks to the performance of Webb’s Ariane 5 launch vehicle and the accuracy of the spacecraft’s maneuvers, it has conserved enough fuel for up to 20 years.

Shortly after launch, NASA said it had enough fuel for 10 years, and on Saturday, Webb Mission Systems Engineer Mike Menzel upped that estimate .

"Because of the efficiency or the accuracy with which Ariane 5 put us on orbit, and our accuracy and effectiveness implementing our mid-course corrections, we have quite a bit of fuel margin right now,”
Menzel said.

"It's around 20 years of propellant, roughly speaking,” though he added that it’s a preliminary estimate.

Webb is currently voyaging to a distant outpost about a million miles away — a spot in space, known as L2, where the gravitational influences of the Earth and sun are in balance, providing a stable platform from which to make observations.

Even so, the telescope will need to make small adjustments to its position and “station keeping” maneuvers to remain steady at L2. Each of them requires burning some of its precious hydrazine fuel.

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which circles the Earth in a relatively close-in orbit, the Webb will be practically inaccessible at L2, meaning that refueling would likely prove impossible. Therefore, the fuel saved by the precise maneuvers will significantly increase the life span of the $10 billion telescope.

Real estate

The house from ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ just sold for nearly $3 million

Posted January 11, 2022 at 9:31 AM EST
A Los Angeles home featured in Wes Craven's 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street was sold for almost $3 million.
Anthony Barcelo
A Los Angeles home featured in Wes Craven's 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street was sold for almost $3 million.

The house that anchored the 1984 horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street has been sold after nearly three months on the market, going for $2,980,000.

Despite its nightmarish movie ties, the house can be seen as a dream home, with 3 bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms, along with a pool and a guest house.

It’s “a beautiful Dutch Colonial with a modern twist,” according to the listing on Realtor.com. The house sits just off of Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks east of the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel. A Whole Foods is also nearby.

The house located at 1428 N. Genesee Ave. went up for sale last October, a week before Halloween. Its initial asking price was listed as $3.5 million.

While director Wes Craven set his film in the small (and nonexistent) town of Springwood, Ohio, he filmed the exterior shots in Hollywood, in the house’s Los Angeles neighborhood of Spaulding Square. The Los Angeles Times notes that the area’s lack of palm trees and quaint vibe have long made it a favorite for directors shooting movies and TV shows set in small-town USA.

Of course, even Freddy Krueger might be frightened by today’s hyper-competitive housing market: In 2021, home prices shot up by 19%.

As NPR’s Tien Le reported last fall:

“The iconic house isn't just a place of horror. It's also the location of Bo Burnham: Inside, a solo musical comedy special shot and produced during the height of the pandemic, and a possible Grammy contender.”

Nessie?

Watch scientists unearth a massive 180 million-year-old 'sea dragon' fossil in England

Posted January 11, 2022 at 9:11 AM EST

The fossilized skeleton of a giant ichthyosaur, or “sea dragon," has been described as the “palaeontological discovery of a lifetime” by a team at the Rutland Water Nature Reserve.

The Jurassic giant was found last year by Rutland Water conservation team leader Joe Davis, the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust said on Monday, with the site excavated by scientists and volunteers during the summer.

This footage, released by Anglian Water, which manages the reserve in partnership with the wildlife trust, shows the excavation of the site in August 2021.

Ichthyosaurs first appeared approximately 250 million years ago and went extinct around 90 million years ago. The marine reptiles could grow to 25 meters in length. The remains at the Rutland site are about 180 million years old, according to the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, and measured 10 meters in length, with a skull that weighs approximately one tonne.

“It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history,” said Dean Lomax, the leader of the excavation.

Health

The Red Cross has declared a 'national blood crisis.' Here's how you can help

Posted January 11, 2022 at 8:26 AM EST
A sign that reads "American Red Cross" and "Blood Drive Here Today" points towards a building, with a Red Cross van parked outside and a woman walking towards the entrance.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
A woman arrives at an American Red Cross blood drive held to help alleviate a blood supply shortage as a result of the coronavirus pandemic at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 27, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The American Red Cross says the nation is facing its worst blood shortage in more than a decade, citing a drop in blood drives due to the pandemic.

The organization said on Tuesday that the "national blood crisis" is threatening patient care and forcing doctors to make tough choices about who is able to receive blood transfusions, and it's urging people to donate.

In recent weeks, the Red Cross — which provides some 40% of the nation's blood — has had less than a one-day supply of critical blood types and has had to limit blood product distributions to hospitals. It says that at times, up to one-quarter of hospital blood needs are not being met.

There has been a significant drop in donations during the pandemic, and weather conditions and staffing limitations have caused ongoing cancelation of planned blood drives. There's been a 10% overall blood donation decline since March 2020, and a 62% drop in college and high school blood drives during the pandemic, it says.

This is not the first such shortage since the onset of COVID-19 — in April 2020, for instance, the federal government loosened restrictions on receiving blood donations from gay men due to what it described as an unprecedented shortage in the U.S. blood supply (critics argue the ban is based on stigma rather than science in the first place). But by declaring this a historic crisis, officials are upping the urgency.

“Winter weather across the country and the recent surge of COVID-19 cases are compounding the already-dire situation facing the blood supply,” Dr. Baia Lasky, medical director for the Red Cross, said in a statement. “Please, if you are eligible, make an appointment to give blood or platelets in the days and weeks ahead to ensure no patient is forced to wait for critical care.”

Incentives for donating

The Red Cross is asking donors of all blood types, but especially type O, to make an appointment now to give in the weeks ahead. It's also seeking volunteers to help out at blood drives and transport blood products to hospitals.

It's asking donors to consider booking additional appointments in advance, as while "the availability of drives may be impacted, the need for blood remains constant." Blood can't be manufactured or stockpiled, it adds.

In case giving back and potentially saving lives isn't enough, the Red Cross is partnering with the NFL to offer another incentive in January, which is National Blood Donor Month. People who donate blood, platelets or plasma will automatically be entered for a chance to win two tickets to the upcoming Super Bowl LVIin Los Angeles, as well as a home theater package and a $500 electronic gift card to watch the game at home.

You can make an appointment to give blood or platelets through the Red Cross Blood Donor app, on the organization's website or by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. Here's more on what to do before, during and after your appointment.

Newsmaker
Voting rights

Here's what Rep. Clyburn wants from President Biden's voting rights speech today

Posted January 11, 2022 at 8:18 AM EST
Rep. James Clyburn sits behind a wooden podium with a microphone on top, with a blurred American flag in the background.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Nov. 17, 2021. in Washington, D.C.

President Biden and Vice President Harris will visit Atlanta today to renew their push for congressional action to protect voting rights, amid stalled progress on Capitol Hill and increasing pressure from advocates as GOP-led states move to restrict access to the ballot.

Senate Republicans have blocked two voting rights bills using the filibuster: The Freedom To Vote Act, which would set new minimum standards for early and mail-in voting, and The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which seeks to restore major elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court rulings.

Progressive activists (some of whom will be skipping the speech) are calling on the president and his party to take action by changing Senate rules to either end the filibuster or carve out an exemption for certain bills. The White House says he will address the filibuster and "forcefully advocate" for protecting voting rights in his remarks. Read more from NPR's Juana Summers.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, one of the champions of voting rights legislation, spoke to Morning Edition's A Martínez about what he wants to hear in the president's speech.

"I want the president to stay on course," he said. "He's been there for some time now and I wish he would continue, as he did in his speech on Jan. 6. I think he set the tone for where he is and where he hopes the country will move to, and that is to open up voting as the Supreme Court invited us to [in 2013's Shelby v. Holder decision]."

Listen to their conversation or read on for highlights.

On the Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise bill led in part by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, which Republicans blocked via filibuster in October:

"President Biden has endorsed the new deal with Joe Manchin put on the table called Freedom to Vote ... Stacey Abrams down in Georgia, she endorsed it right after Joe Manchin brought it out, I expressed public support for it ... I think the president needs to be very clear that he has endorsed Joe Manchin's Freedom to Vote Act and other groups have endorsed it, and so Joe Manchin ought to be coming on board to support getting rid of the filibuster so his own bill can pass."

On whether Democrats are overpromising:

"I don't think so ... We control the house, the Democrats do, and the Democrats have passed both these bills and sent them to the Senate. The Senate is 50-50 and that's where the problem is ... only 48 of those 50 Democrats seem to be on board."

On whether lawmakers should focus on reforming the Electoral Count Act, as several Republicans have signaled interest in doing so:

"That part of this equation will not take effect until 2024, so no that should not get out in front of this. Let's get rid of all these impediments to the vote that we're now experiencing in these states, and then after this is done we have plenty time to deal with that part of it because that's presidential stuff. I've been saying most of my adult life that we focus too much on presidential stuff and not what's happening at our legislatures and our school boards, and that's where our big problem is."

Climate

Extreme weather in the U.S. cost 688 lives and $145 billion last year, NOAA says

Posted January 11, 2022 at 8:08 AM EST
A volunteer helps set up snacks at a cooling center established to help vulnerable residents ride out the second dangerous heat wave to grip the Pacific Northwest last summer.
Gillian Flaccus/AP
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AP
A volunteer helps set up snacks at a cooling center established to help vulnerable residents ride out the second dangerous heat wave to grip the Pacific Northwest last summer.

Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and a winter storm and cold wave were among 20 weather and climate disasters in the U.S. last year that cost $1 billion or more, totaling $145 billion and killing 688 people, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In an overview of an annual report released on Monday by NOAA, scientists also said that 2021 ranked as the fourth-warmest year on record in the United States, with December 2021 being the warmest December ever recorded. The full report is due out Thursday.

Adjusted for inflation, 2021 was the third-costliest on record for extreme weather events, after 2017 and 2005, the report said.

The events cited include Hurricane Ida, wildfires and a deadly heat wave in the West, three separate tornado outbreaks in the South and central parts of the U.S., and unusually cold temperatures in Texas that left millions of people without electricity.

"It was a tough year. Climate change has taken a shotgun approach to hazards across the country," said NOAA climatologist and economist Adam Smith, who compiled the report for the agency.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change would increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, driving up the cost, and likely the death toll, for such disasters.

In the report, NOAA cautioned that: “In performing these disaster cost assessments these statistics were taken from a wide variety of sources and represent, to the best of our ability, the estimated total costs of these events — that is, the costs in terms of dollars that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place. Insured and uninsured losses are included in damage estimates.”

Adjusted for inflation, the report shows a steady increase in billion-dollar disasters over the decades — with 29 in the 1980s, 53 in the 1990s, 63 in the 2000s, and 123 in the 2010s. The last five years have seen 86 such events, NOAA says.

"I think the biggest lesson is that the past is not a good predictor of the future and to begin planning now for what the climate might be 20, 30 years from now," David Easterling, a climate scientist at NOAA, told NPR last month.