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News brief: Biden-Xi meeting, climate summit, Catholic communion debate

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden is known to prefer meeting other leaders face to face.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

But when he meets China's leader, Xi Jinping, tonight, it'll be a virtual get-together. The White House says areas where the U.S. and China compete and where they have common interests are all on the virtual table.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is following this one. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

KING: You've reported on this a bunch. Biden likes meeting people in real life. Why is this happening online?

DETROW: Yeah. And on top of that, just about every single time the topic of China comes up, Biden talks about how much time he and Xi spent together in person when Biden was VP. There had been talk about trying to do this in person, maybe around that international trip Biden just came back from. But President Xi has not left China since the pandemic began, so that increasingly was not an option. They have talked on the phone for two lengthy conversations already this year. The White House says this will feel more like a summit than another call. I think anyone who's been on a Zoom versus a phone call could dispute that...

KING: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...But the difference here - I mean, but the difference here that we don't have with our phone calls is that there's been a lot of conversation between the U.S. and China leading up to this summit, a lot of meetings, including a call between Secretary of State Blinken and his counterpart. And the White House says all of that is actually a big part of the point. Given these increased tensions, they all just want to be communicating more.

KING: And so what will they be communicating about tonight?

DETROW: A few things that that seem to not really go together. Biden is going to address what the U.S. sees as areas of concern with China. That's everything from human rights to trade tensions to what the White House calls coercive and provocative steps China has recently taken toward Taiwan. And yet at the same time, Biden's going to try to talk about areas he thinks the countries can cooperate. Climate change is one of those. And, in fact, at that U.N. climate summit that just ended, the two countries did work closely together. That's something Xi's office says he'll focus on, too. And Biden was recently asked about this disparity. How can things be so cooperative when they're so tense? - though Biden likes to call things competitive, not tense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's no reason there need be conflict. But I've also indicated to him, and I - so I don't - I'm not reluctant to say publicly - that we expect him to play by the rules of the road. We're not going to change our attitude to what constitutes international airspace, international sea lanes, etc.

DETROW: You know, one interesting thing - a White House official was asked whether the supply chain crunch will come up, and they said they do not expect that to be part of this conversation.

KING: So maybe we have enough going on in this one. I wonder, can President Biden point to any successes on China since he took office?

DETROW: Yeah. And one thing he can point to is the other big thing Biden will be doing today. That's signing that trillion-dollar infrastructure bill into law. Back in March, when Biden first rolled the plan out, he argued part of the reason to invest in broadband and roads and bridges is to try to keep pace with China. So that's a big step in that direction. He's also tried to to rally a lot of Western countries around funding more projects in the developing world, and that's to counter the trillions of dollars China has been spending on its Belt and Road Initiative in places like Africa and Asia and even Latin America. Biden has gotten some agreement there, but as of right now, it's not the same scope of spending. The last thing to point to - he's really focused on building up relationships with Australia and Japan and India to counter some of China's aggressive actions in the Pacific. And that included that big nuclear submarine deal with Australia that, of course, really angered France.

KING: And lastly, real quick, there are some reports that Xi might invite Biden to the Beijing Winter Olympics tonight. Any news on that?

DETROW: Yeah, White House officials did not have much to say on that at all. But there's really been tremendous pressure from human rights groups to - for the U.S. to outright boycott the games, let alone send someone as high-profile as Biden. So I think his answer on that topic would be very interesting.

KING: OK. NPR's Scott Detrow. Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: The COP26 summit ended with mixed results.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, almost 200 countries signed on to goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that could slow the pace of rising temperatures if they follow through with their pledges. But many of the countries most affected by climate change, along with the thousands of protesters on the streets of Scotland, wanted much more action a lot faster.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt covered that conference. He's with us now from London. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, has said you cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Was this agreement good?

LANGFITT: Well, there were some good things in in there. Some countries did agree to bigger cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. And for the first time, they openly talked about phasing out fossil fuels. And this was seen as progress. But I've got to say, Noel, given the dire state of things, it says a lot that it's taken that long to actually get that in the language. But emissions still need to fall dramatically by 2030 to keep the goal of keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. And the idea is anything much above that, you're going to begin to see really catastrophic effects of climate change. Now, right now, the world is on track for much higher temperatures. And when it comes to carbon, basically all these nations, the big emitting nations - they need to go on a crash diet, but they keep emitting more and more.

KING: OK, so that's one thing critics are going to point to. And there are some other shortfalls in this agreement that were made very public.

LANGFITT: Yeah, there were. I mean, one thing - and this - a lot of this comes to language and agreements, but it does matter. Originally, just towards the end, there was a call for phasing out coal, which had been very popular among some of the hardest-hit nations by climate change. But at the last moment, India stepped in and said, no, we want to say phase down coal. And that really upset a lot of these nations that are suffering from drought, rising seas in terms of island nations. This is Maina Talia. He's a climate activist in Tuvalu. It's an archipelago in the South Pacific.

MAINA TALIA: It seems like the rich countries and industrialized country does not give a damn about us because, I think, they are thinking that we are small in number, and we are small nations, you know, and we have no value for them.

LANGFITT: And the other thing is that I will say there were pledges by developed countries to help out more of these hard-hit countries. But it was light on details, and you weren't seeing kind of the hard numbers that developing countries wanted to see. Another person I talked to at the conference is named Lamia Mohsin. She works with the U.N. Development Programme in Bangladesh. She's looking for a lot more funding for things like salt-water-resistant crops that would help people be able to grow in areas along the coast of Bangladesh that have been inundated by saltwater.

LAMIA MOHSIN: Needs to be very, very specific. What kind of adaptation/finance are you going to be providing? Is it going to be a loan? Is it going to be a grant? What are the strings attached? Do we have to pay interest? Is there a timeline?

KING: OK, so all of those questions she's asking illustrate that people will be looking for follow-ups to these promises.

LANGFITT: Absolutely.

KING: What might come first?

LANGFITT: The window's closing to prevent permanent damage from climate change. And the summit agreement says that it requests countries revisit and strengthen their plans to reduce emissions next year. There is going to be a lot of scrutiny on that at the next summit, which is in 2022 in Cairo. And expect people, particularly these developing nations that have been really hard hit by climate change, to look at that very closely and see if the policies are in place to slow down the growth in emissions.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. Today in Baltimore, a meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops begins.

MARTINEZ: And we're expecting a debate over who should be allowed to take communion. So here's what's going on. Some of this country's most prominent Catholic politicians, including President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, favor abortion rights. And some conservative bishops say that position should disqualify them from taking communion. But do ordinary Catholics agree? And what about the Vatican?

KING: NPR's Sarah McCammon has been following this one. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Good morning, Noel.

KING: What is this meeting exactly?

MCCAMMON: It's the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They're gathering for the Fall General Assembly meeting this week. This is, by the way, the first in-person meeting of the bishops since the pandemic began. And they'll be talking over the next few days about a bunch of church issues. But one of the big ones is a document focused on the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. And this might sound like a theological discussion amongst Catholics. But the election of President Biden, who regularly attends mass, has resurfaced some longstanding questions about who is eligible to receive communion, in part because of his support for abortion rights. Now, in the past, while it's rare, some politicians, including Biden and also John Kerry, the former secretary of state and current U.S. climate envoy, have been denied communion for that reason in some parts of the country.

KING: And that document you talked about focused on communion - what does it say exactly? What's in it?

MCCAMMON: Well, so it's not expected to explicitly say who can and can't take communion.

KING: OK.

MCCAMMON: It is much broader than that. It's supposed to provide guidance for Catholics and their leaders about the Eucharist. There is a draft circulating on Catholic sites right now but nothing official yet. But regardless, the bishops will start discussing a draft document, which they can also amend, probably tomorrow. They're expected to vote on Wednesday. And they need a two-thirds majority to pass anything. Pope Francis, by the way, while he describes abortion in very strong terms as homicide, also has said he's never denied communion to anyone and has cautioned against politicizing it. And I should mention, Noel, that this comes just after Biden met with the pope during his trip to Rome about two weeks ago, had what was, by all accounts, a warm and positive meeting. And Francis has said he wants to work with Biden on the many areas where he and the church are in agreement, things like helping the poor. If the Vatican sees whatever the American bishops produce this week as going too far, the Vatican could refuse to accept it.

KING: Oh, that is very interesting. And then what about just regular, ordinary Catholics who go to church and are not politicians or bishops? What are they saying about this?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, I've been talking with several American Catholics about this. And I've heard a variety of thoughts. Renee Ruiz (ph) lives in Bend, Ore., and she's a member of Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights. She says her faith is very important to her, but she feels left out of the conversation about abortion in the church.

RENEE RUIZ: There are many of us who aren't cis male that still believe in the church and still actively, you know, support the teachings of the church. But we aren't recognizing those meetings necessarily, right? We're not given the title of Catholic bishop.

MCCAMMON: I also talked with a Catholic homeschooling mom of four in Indiana who strongly opposes abortion. But she told me she feels like this discussion is dividing the church. And I should mention, according to polling, more than half of American Catholics support abortion rights in most or all cases. And even more say politicians shouldn't be denied communion for holding that position.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks for this, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.