Supreme Court delivers devastating blow to US climate action

supreme court delivers devastating blow to us climate action
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The US Supreme Court delivered a severe blow on Thursday to the federal government’s ability to tackle the climate crisis.

Hours before breaking for summer recess, the justices announced a 6-3 ruling from its conservative majority in favour of the plaintiffs in the case, West Virginia v EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

It is a significant win for the plaintiffs – 19 Republican-leaning states and fossil fuel interests led by West Virginia – who argued for limits to government power in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The decision caps off a near decade-long legal battle that started under the Obama administration and could kneecap President Joe Biden’s ambitious plans to slash domestic emissions, which he has pledged to cut in half by 2030.

The court’s majority found that the EPA did not have the authority to create system-wide regulations on power plant emissions, as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) had attempted to do back in 2014 by using a specific part of the Clean Air Act, known as Section 111.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” wrote Chief Justice Roberts, in the majority opinion.

“But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d). A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

The dissenting opinion came from the court’s three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer. It opened with a lengthy passage on how “climate change’s causes and dangers are no longer subject to serious doubt”.

The decision today “deprives EPA of the power needed—and the power granted—to curb the emission of greenhouse gases,” wrote Justice Kagan.

In addition, Justice Kagan’s dissent focused on the issue of Congress delegating regulatory details to federal agencies like the EPA.

“Congress usually can’t predict the future—can’t anticipate changing circumstances and the way they will affect varied regulatory techniques,” she wrote.

Justice Kagan concluded: “Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change.

“And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening. Respectfully, I dissent.”

The court had previously ruled that greenhouse gases (GHGs) counted as pollutants in the 2007 case Masschusetts v EPA. This decision does not overturn that ruling, instead focusing on the interpretation of Section 111 of the Clean Air Act under Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

That plan is no longer in place, having been scrapped by the Trump administration – so this ruling will lead to no immediate changes in federal policy, but could affect how the Biden administration shapes their own rules for power plant emissions.

Robert Rhode, a physicist at the non-profit Berkeley Earth, tweeted that the court “didn’t prohibit the EPA from other kinds of greenhouse gas regulations, nor did they attack the Clean Air Act, the EPA, or regulatory process at large.”

“This narrow outcome avoids most of what people had feared,” he added.

“I appreciate the strong dissent but opening line goes too far saying EPA striped of authority. It’s not,” tweeted Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law professor and climate change official in the Obama White House.

This decision’s “silver lining” is that it leave intact the EPA’s ability to determine the best system of emissions reduction, and Chief Justice Roberts’ decision still preserves the possibility of going “beyond the fenceline,” Freeman added, referring to regulations that affect an entire industry, as opposed to an individual power plant.

Environmental groups have responded negatively to today’s ruling. “Hard on the heels of snatching away fundamental liberties, the right-wing activist court just curtailed vital climate action,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Jason Rylander via a press release.

“In the wake of this ruling, EPA must use its remaining authority to the fullest,” he added.

Justice Breyer is set to retire at noon on Thursday and will be replaced by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson who makes history as the first female Black justice.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which includes three appointees of former President Donald Trump, has already shifted to the right on issues, favoring less government oversight.

Last week, the conservative majority overturned the landmark case, Roe v Wade, striking down 50 years of constitutional abortion protections.

The 6-3 conservative majority also recently weakened restrictions on gun ownership. On Monday, the court’s majority ruled that a high school football coach who prayed on-field after games was protected by the Constitution, which opponents claimed could lead to “much more coercive prayer” in public schools.

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