Need To Know

The United States and 12 other countries signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership yesterday. It’s a massive trade deal — the largest ever — that will have an equally massive impact on the world.

It’s not easy to understand the significance of the TPP, as the world’s been calling it. Even the US Congress says it will need time to comb through the treaty’s details before it can sign off on it.

Basically, the deal creates new rules that manage commerce between the United States, Canada, parts of Central and South America and many countries of the Pacific Rim. All told the governments that have signed on represent 40 percent of the global economy. The treaty is written in such a way that more countries can sign on later.

The TPP is one of the most important, divisive and least talked about agenda items in the entire tenure of US President Barack Obama. It represents the president’s effort to “pivot” east to emerging markets in Asia, and away from the Middle East, where the United States has been focused for so long. It is also an attempt to meet the challenge of China’s rising economic clout. 

The debate over the deal can be so caustic, however, that the Obama administration has sought to keep many of its details secret during the years of negotiations. 

Congress itself is divided. Though most Republicans are in favor of the deal, many of Obama’s own Democrats are not. A vote to ratify the treaty will come in 2016, and will likely be the most serious test Obama will face during his last year in office.

Former US President Bill Clinton had to do the exact same thing when Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. The treaty was equally divisive, and more than 20 years later the world is still debating whether NAFTA helped or hurt.

Want To Know

Among those who have examined the TPP, the arguments break down in fairly predictable ways. Supporters say it will be an economic boon for everyone. Critics say it will hurt workers and the poor while enriching multinational corporations.

So who is right? It depends in large part on your worldview. For instance, the free-trade zone could mean more regulation of the internet, which could help make e-commerce across borders more efficient and reduce copyright infringement. But it also raises serious questions about privacy and the potential for government interference in information-sharing.

Medicine is an important issue as well. Pharmaceutical companies wanted written into the treaty a 12-year right to exclusively manufacture and sell newly patented medicine. Corporations argued that this grace period gives them incentives and time to develop new life-saving technologies. In the TPP’s final form, they got five years.

That grace period, though, could have serious effects on the availability of affordable drugs around the world. It remains unclear what the struggling people GlobalPost met in a bargain basement pharmacy in downtown Mexico City will do if cheap and life-saving generic drugs disappear, and high-cost patented ones fill the shelves in their place.

There are few regulations in the treaty that don’t have both potentially positive and negative outcomes. The world’s environmentalists, for example, are both really happy and really angry. They pushed for tighter regulations on the trade of plants and animals and got them. The TPP will require signatories to abide by existing environmental protection laws. It also introduces new enforcement methods and places limits on wildlife tracking and subsidies for illegal fishing. But — and with the TPP there is always a "but" — green groups worry the deal will encourage all kinds of other threats to the climate.

Strange But True

Chernobyl is probably one of history’s clearest examples of the negative impact humans have on the world. The nuclear disaster, which happened almost three decades ago, sent harmful radioactive chemicals into the air, water and land, forcing people in the area to permanently evacuate.

But all these years later, while empty of people, Chernobyl is teeming with life. The area is now pretty much a nature reserve, filled with elk, deer and wolves. This same thing happened in the no-go zone between North and South Korea. The demilitarized zone, as it's called, is now an important wildlife refuge.

"When humans are removed, nature flourishes — even in the wake of the world's worst nuclear accident," one scientist said in reaction to the news. "It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are now much higher than they were before the accident."