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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a global diplomatic push to try to avert a broad regional war in the Middle East following Iran's attack on Israel last weekend as Israel weighs a possible response.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As part of that push, the U.S. is reaching out to China, hoping Beijing will use its influence on Tehran. But it is unclear how far China will be willing to go, especially now, because, today, the U.S. is announcing a tripling of tariffs on Chinese steel.

FADEL: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam joins us now to discuss. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Leila.

FADEL: So why China? What sort of influence does it have with Tehran?

NORTHAM: Well, it's one of the largest countries that has some sway with Iran. You know, they're natural bedfellows in their opposition to the U.S. But, you know, Beijing also offers Tehran diplomatic support and certainly an economic lifeline. You know, it's really the only country buying Iranian oil. So they do have this strong, if mostly transactional, relationship.

I spoke with Evan Medeiros. And he's a China specialist at Georgetown University, and he was on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. And he says there's a big question about how far Beijing is willing to go along with the request from the Biden administration. Let's have a listen to him.

EVAN MEDEIROS: The idea that Beijing is prepared to use any diplomatic capital or any leverage that it has on Tehran is a big, open question. And the broader Chinese view is, why should we carry any water with the Americans on this? This is their problem. They created it.

NORTHAM: Medeiros says turmoil in the Middle East could distract the Biden administration from focusing on its competition with China and, you know, its military activities in the South China Sea. But, you know, just to further complicate things, the U.S. and some allies have now imposed more sanctions on Iran. And, you know, the Biden administration, as you said, just announced a tripling of tariffs on Chinese steel, you know - and which could have an impact on any interest Beijing might have with helping out with Iran.

FADEL: So if the U.S. is hoping for China's help in this moment to pressure Iran, which is warning it would respond harshly to any possible response from Israel, why make the decision to triple tariffs now?

NORTHAM: It's hard to say. It's an election year. It could help the U.S. steel industry. You know, but the timing is interesting if the U.S. is looking for China's help. There have been moments when China has stepped out. You know, it helped broker a deal to reestablish relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. And at that time, there were indications Beijing wanted to position itself as a critical player in the region.

FADEL: OK, so we've seen China play a really important role in the region, as you point out. Does that continue today? Would Beijing be willing in this moment, with fears of all-out regional war, to intervene with Iran?

NORTHAM: Well, that's the hope. I mean, several analysts I spoke with said there have been times when, you know, Beijing could have used its influence in the region, and it didn't. You know, there were calls recently for China to exert pressure on Iran to rein in the Houthis and their attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea - didn't happen.

I spoke with Andrew Mertha, and he's a professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. And he says Beijing likes the idea of being a great player in the region, but it doesn't want to get involved in other countries' domestic issues. Here he is now.

ANDREW MERTHA: I think that Beijing's foreign policy tends to be both opportunistic and fairly timid. That's because Beijing is unprepared to play a larger role in the region that might require difficult decisions.

NORTHAM: Decisions such as getting militarily involved or upending relations it's trying to nurture with other countries in the region - so economic relations, Leila. Mertha says it's all transactional for China.

FADEL: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks very much.

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FADEL: Today, the Democratic-led Senate will kick off the impeachment trial of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. But don't blink because you just might miss it.

MARTIN: It is just the second in history of a sitting cabinet secretary, and it is rooted in the long, ongoing debate over immigration policy and politics. Democrats want to quash the effort quickly, while Republicans are calling for a full trial.

FADEL: NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is here to talk about all this. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So which side will get what it wants here?

GRISALES: Well, whoever controls the Senate - and that's Democrats. And many have said they want to see an outright motion to dismiss the trial because they say this is a dispute over border policy, and it does not rise to the level of an impeachment process. But now we are hearing senators could potentially reach an agreement to allow debate rather than just disposing of this very quickly.

FADEL: Why the possible shift in plans?

GRISALES: Well, Republicans have ramped up pressure on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats to spend more time on this. I talked to Utah Senator Mitt Romney, a moderate Republican who wants to see more of this debate happen. Here's what he said walking through the halls of the Capitol yesterday.

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MITT ROMNEY: I'd far prefer having a debate, a discussion of some kind or a trial or a committee discussion. I think a motion to table sets a very unfortunate constitutional precedent.

GRISALES: And Democrats are watching moderate Republicans like Romney very closely in this narrowly controlled chamber because he's one of their swing votes to try to wrap this up as quick as possible.

FADEL: And why this sense of urgency from the Democrats?

GRISALES: A few reasons - we covered their political objections, but the Senate is facing a potentially jam-packed week ahead of another recess for Congress next week. Friday marks the deadline to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - or FISA - which remains quite controversial, and we saw the House struggle to pass this and send it to the Senate. There's also the potential the House could take up foreign aid for Israel, Ukraine and others and send it to the Senate, and there's new pressure after the Iran strikes against Israel this past weekend.

FADEL: Right. We talked about this yesterday - the House might finally be ready to vote on the aid package after months of Republican division. Is there any more clarity this morning about whether that legislation may pass?

GRISALES: No. That's the million-dollar question right now - is House speaker Mike Johnson is facing the growing threat of ouster for attempting to bring this aid to the floor this week, specifically for Ukraine. For his part, Johnson is moving full-steam ahead, and he told reporters he's not focusing on the potential for this so-called motion to vacate.

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MIKE JOHNSON: I am not resigning, and it is, in my view, an absurd notion that someone would bring a vacate motion when we are simply here trying to do our jobs.

GRISALES: Johnson says it is not helpful to the cause or the country, and it does not help House Republicans advance their agenda.

FADEL: How many Republicans are pushing for a new speaker right now?

GRISALES: Well, we're at two right now, but that's a big deal in a very tight margin for Republicans in the House chamber. Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who's opposed to this Ukraine aid, is leading the call. And yesterday, Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie said he asked Johnson to resign and that he was joining forces with Greene. But this is another wild card. She has not pushed for a vote yet, but it's one of many wild cards facing Capitol Hill right now.

FADEL: NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales - thank you, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thank you.

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FADEL: The world's coral reefs are undergoing a mass bleaching event which could soon be the worst on record.

MARTIN: Ocean temperatures have been unusually hot, which turns the corals a ghostly white. It is threatening an ecosystem that supports thousands of species - and, by extension, millions of people - so scientists are trying to help corals survive.

FADEL: Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk is here to explain. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So what exactly happens when corals bleach, and how bad is it for reefs?

SOMMER: Yeah. So corals are very sensitive to heat, and bleaching happens because too much heat upsets a very important relationship. It's between a coral and these tiny, microscopic algae that live inside the coral. I mean, those algae are kind of like really good roommates. They make food for the coral by photosynthesizing - you know, making energy from the sun. But when the ocean gets hot, the corals get stressed, and that kind of roommate relationship just falls apart. The algae get kicked out, and the corals begin to starve.

FADEL: So do corals die from bleaching?

SOMMER: You know, not necessarily. If the heat doesn't last too long, corals can recover because those roommates - you know, the algae - they move back in. But when the heat drags on, corals do die, and that's what's happened in Florida last summer. There was a mass mortality event there. Australia's Great Barrier Reef is undergoing bleaching right now, and, you know, they're still waiting to see how many corals will die there. This is the second global bleaching event in the last decade, and it's expected to be the worst on record.

FADEL: So what does that mean for the future of coral reefs if these events get more common with climate change?

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean, many of the coral scientists I've talked to just have watched this bleaching event with dread because the outlook going forward for corals is just more of the same. Here's how Terry Hughes describes it. He's a coral scientist at James Cook University in Australia.

TERRY HUGHES: By midcentury, we'll have bleaching every consecutive summer. And if we do nothing about rising temperatures - if we continue with business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, then the world's coral reefs will simply be degraded and no longer recognizable for the next generation.

SOMMER: I mean, that would impact thousands of other marine species because reefs are some of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It also hits human communities because millions of people rely on reefs for food security and their livelihoods. So, you know, scientists are developing ways to help corals survive better. They're actually creating super corals.

FADEL: Super corals - OK, what are their superpowers?

SOMMER: So the idea is to develop corals that can handle heat better - basically speeding up evolution. You know, scientists in Australia and elsewhere in the world are finding the best corals at surviving heat, and then they're breeding those. They're also breeding the corals' algae. It's known as assisted evolution, and the idea is to develop corals that can be used to restore reefs.

FADEL: So could they survive in a hotter climate?

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean that's the question, right? There won't be a bionic coral that can survive no matter what. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. I mean, coral scientists are very clear it's about buying time - you know, years, maybe decades at the most. It's really so corals can hang in there until humans start to slow climate change. The most crucial thing for reefs, scientists say, is curbing emissions from burning fossil fuels and stopping temperatures from rising.

FADEL: Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate desk - thank you, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.