News Brief: U.S.-China Trade Talks, Humans Accelerate Species' Extinction

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 7, 2019 7:01 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It takes two to make a thing go right. Right?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah.

GREENE: Well, things are not exactly going right between United States and China, I think we could say.

MARTIN: Nope. China's trade negotiators are set to arrive in the U.S. this week, but President Trump already plans to raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods on Friday. The president's top economic adviser suggested in a briefing yesterday that this latest tariff increase is retaliation after China walked away from previous commitments. So does this mean the once bright prospects for a trade deal have now dimmed?

GREENE: Well, let's ask NPR's chief economic correspondent, Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Not exactly the most pleasant way to welcome people to a country for trade talks saying...

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...Yeah, come to Washington and talk. But we're going to threaten to raise your tariffs before we even start talking.

HORSLEY: Right. And we know more about the backstory now than we did 24 hours ago.

When President Trump first tweeted that tariff threat over the weekend, he caught a lot of people by surprise because Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had been in Beijing last week for trade talks. And the report we got was that those talks were productive. There were signs that the two sides were closing in on a deal.

But Mnuchin and Lighthizer told reporters yesterday that China is backtracking from some of the commitments it had already made. And Mnuchin said that was crystallized over the weekend when China sent over a new draft of what was supposed to be the possible agreement. Lighthizer is adamant that those tariffs are going to ratchet up from 10% to 25% at a minute past midnight on Friday morning, just as a new round of talks is underway here in Washington - although Mnuchin did leave the door open that those - that tariff increase could be postponed again if China blinks.

GREENE: But the markets follow all this so closely, like every little hint. And this is more than a hint. This is the Trump administration saying, I mean, essentially that they could blow this whole thing up. So how are the markets reacting?

HORSLEY: You know, there was a sharp drop in stocks yesterday after the president's threat. But late in the day, the markets sort of recovered a lot of that lost ground. Investors seem to think this is all just for show; this is just a bargaining tactic. And over the weekend, the stock reaction was fairly muted. Excuse me - overnight, rather, the stock reaction was fairly muted.

Mnuchin did say yesterday that the administration is not going to be moved by short-term market reactions. They're really determined to see China change its behavior. However, President Trump is playing with fire here. You know, the president's own approval ratings are not very good. One exception is he gets pretty high marks for his handling of the economy, and that could change if there's a real blowup between the world's two biggest economies.

GREENE: So - but is this - could this just all be a negotiating strategy? Is that possible?

HORSLEY: It's possible. Both Mnuchin and Lighthizer say Liu He, the leader of the Chinese delegation, is someone they think they can do business with. What they feel like is that he's getting pushback from some hard-liners elsewhere in the Chinese government who might be swayed by these higher tariffs. It's a reminder that, even in an autocratic government like China, there can be factions - just as there certainly have been on China here in the Trump administration. For the moment, though, all sides of the Trump administration seem united that these tariffs are going to go up on Friday.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

GREENE: OK. Scott mentioned there that people in the Trump administration seem united. The White House does seem to be presenting this unified front to the Chinese on trade this week, but it wasn't always this way.

MARTIN: No. Not so long ago, top White House advisers got into really bitter disagreements - several of them - over whether tariffs would help the U.S. economy or, in fact, devastate it. And the disagreements were not just behind closed doors.

GREENE: And we're joined now by NPR's Laura Sullivan. She's been working with our partner PBS "Frontline" on a story about how the trade dispute took shape inside the Trump White House, and their hour-long film airs tonight.

Hi, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So tell me about this rift in the White House. And what period of time are we talking about?

SULLIVAN: So this is the beginning of the Trump administration, and things broke down very quickly. It was people like Gary Cohn, Trump's top economic adviser; a hawkish economist named Peter Navarro; his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. And they separated almost immediately into two camps. This battle became known as the globalists versus the nationalists. Gary Cohn was a globalist. Globalist hate tariffs. Nationalists, like Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, want tariffs. Bannon told me these were, quote, "the nastiest fights in the White House." And it got very personal.

Peter Navarro would go in - would just go at it with Gary Cohn at these weekly trade meetings. Navarro would pull out one of his charts - you have to picture these sort of giant pie charts on whiteboards - which Gary Cohn told me used to just drive him nuts. Cohn came from data-heavy Goldman Sachs and couldn't believe this was how policy was being made. He said Navarro and Bannon didn't bring actual data to the meetings; they brought pictures.

Bannon completely disputes this. He says Cohn refused to acknowledge and couldn't understand that the country is at - what he called - economic war with China. In any case, one day, they all got into it in the Roosevelt Room, and it got so bad that General John Kelly had to come in and break things up before it went to blows, sent them all back into separate rooms. It went on like this several times.

GREENE: Sent them to their corners.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. But at the heart of this was something very serious. They were arguing over whether tariffs will balance the relationship with a competing country that is poised to overtake the United States as the world's next superpower or whether tariffs will destroy the United States economy in the process.

GREENE: How long did this all go on?

SULLIVAN: They fought bitterly for about a year, and they're still angry with each other. I talked with H.R. McMaster, and he said they were all passionate about China. They were equally concerned about the economic threat that China poses to the United States. When I told Bannon that's what McMaster said, this is how he responded.

STEVE BANNON: That's a total and complete lie. I fought that guy every day. I don't want to hear his nonsense now that he realizes he was on the wrong side of the history. If he said that, he is a stone cold liar.

GREENE: Wow. Bannon still sounds angry.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. He actually had a string of profanity that went along with that, most of which started with the letter F. But I thought I would spare everybody that this early in the morning (laughter).

GREENE: Well, we appreciate that. We appreciate that. So I mean, some people say that it's good to have different sides competing within an administration, and you get to a good result. Could that be the case here, or was this battle, like, undermining the Trump administration's ability to hold these trade talks?

SULLIVAN: I mean, these fights got very nasty. And at some point, it was seeping well outside the White House. Susan Thornton was the acting secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and she served under 10 secretaries of state. And she said this was the most difficult job she had - she's had, trying to present a strong unified front to the Chinese. This is how she described her job.

SUSAN THORNTON: They were having fights in front of the Chinese delegation, which is, like, the cardinal sin of negotiating. It makes it look like your delegation doesn't know what it's doing and that the leader of the delegation doesn't have sufficient authority to negotiate.

SULLIVAN: So that's all in the past now. Here we are. The nationalists, like Bannon and Navarro, won. Trump levied billions in tariffs on Chinese imports and seems poised to add billions more, and most of the people involved in these fights have now left the White House.

GREENE: All right. And your PBS "Frontline" film airs tonight, right?

SULLIVAN: That's right.

GREENE: On all of this. All right.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GREENE: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Laura, thanks.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: So 1 million species of plants and animals on Earth are at risk of extinction over the coming decades.

MARTIN: Right. This is according to this new sweeping U.N. report about how the world's growing population is putting the world's biodiversity at risk. The chairman of the panel that produced the report put the findings in simple terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT WATSON: Biodiversity is important in its own right. Biodiversity is important for human well-being, and we humans are destroying it.

MARTIN: And the researchers say the situation is dire. They also say it's not too late to prevent some of the damage.

GREENE: And I'm joined now by NPR's Nate Rott, who's here at NPR West in LA with me. He covers this. Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So destroying biodiversity, humans doing that - I mean, I don't want to be overdramatic. But that's what this report is basically telling us.

ROTT: Yeah. Unfortunately, David, that is exactly what it's telling us - that you, me, our 7-billion-plus fellow humans are completely altering the face of the Earth and straining all of the systems that string everything together. For example, the report says that three-quarters of the land surface on the planet - imagine that. Three-quarters of the land surface...

GREENE: Yeah.

ROTT: ...And two-thirds of the oceans have been significantly altered by humans. So we're talking forests or grasslands that have been turned into farming areas, wetlands that have been covered in concrete to build cities on, coral reefs bleached by warm waters. Those direct changes to land and water are the biggest drivers of decline in biodiversity, the report says. But it also mentions pollution, invasive species from our global trade, overfishing, overlogging and, of course, climate change.

GREENE: So you and I have even talked about some of these things independently and - that you've reported on.

ROTT: For sure, yeah.

GREENE: I mean, is there anything new here? Or is this report kind of taking a lot of problems that we've known about together and saying this is the scope kind of broadly?

ROTT: Yeah. It's basically making this connection and taking all these one-off stories that you and I have all - we've heard about, right? - threatened species - say, sage-grouse or monarch butterflies - or you know, we've read a story about an ecosystem that's in really dire shape - you know, the melting Arctic, deforestation in Brazil. And it's tying all those together to show that this is a systemic problem. And it's also doing something that we don't often see, which is that it's showing that there's a broader implication here.

And that broader implication, frankly, is pretty scary. You know, it's a reminder that, for all the power that we have over the natural world - all of our technology and doodads - you know, we still depend on natural systems for our day-to-day lives. We rely on trees and plants to make oxygen that we breathe. We rely on butterflies and bees to pollinate the crops that we eat. So we are still very much a part of this web, even if we control much of it.

GREENE: Can we control the solution? Is there anything we can do about this?

ROTT: There are lots - there's a lot of things we can do about it. But I think - to quote the people that wrote this, they said, it would take "unprecedented transformative change." Here's Anne Larigauderie, a French ecologist and executive secretary of the panel that put this report together.

ANNE LARIGAUDERIE: We have not lost the battle. And if given the chance, nature will reconquer its rights and will prevail. And so we really want everyone to feel that they can contribute.

ROTT: So this report lays out a huge list of steps that we can all take to do this. We can reduce waste. We can, you know, conserve the wild spaces that we still have. We can change law or, in some cases, enforce ones that we already have. But a key step is also education. And we, you know, this is - we can't fix a problem we can't recognize. And so hopefully, this is a step in that direction.

GREENE: Just one first step towards the knowledge that we need. NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks so much, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah. Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.