Amid heat records being shattered across the world and historic wildfires raging across the west, climate activists and policymakers working to aggressively curb greenhouse gas emissions are now facing a new kind of challenge – restrictions issued by the US supreme court.
Earlier today, the court released a ruling in West Virginia v EPA limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, in a major environmental case with far-reaching impacts. This has been classified a “devastating” outcome by environmental lawyers, climate scientists and activists alike. One with far-reaching implications for the future of the country, and world.
“At this point, for those in positions of high power to deny the urgency and the stakes of the climate crisis is to condemn everyone alive today and generations to come to life in a sick and impoverished world,” said Ginger Cassady, executive director of Rainforest Action Network.
The court’s conservative majority voted 6-3 in favor of leading coal producer West Virginia, in a lawsuit with challenges originally brought by 20 other Republican attorneys general, who sued for the EPA to have less regulatory power over existing power plants without express authorization from Congress under the Clean Air Act. In the ruling, the court’s conservative supermajority determined that the Clean Air Act does not authorize anything other than direct regulation of power plants.
“Global climate change is the underlying environmental challenge of this day and age,” said senior attorney Frank Rambo, who leads the energy program at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And the US is the leading contributor to that globally. The ability of our federal government to get a handle on our contribution to climate change is what’s at stake.”
It’s likely the ruling will spell trouble for Joe Biden’s climate targets, which include cleaning up the electric power grid in order to meet a national goal of 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero by 2050.
In a statement, the president responded to the ruling: “The supreme court’s ruling in West Virginia v EPA is another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards. While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis.”
The EPA also issued a response saying they are reviewing the court’s decision: “EPA is committed to using the full scope of its existing authorities to protect public health and significantly reduce environmental pollution, which is in alignment with the growing clean energy economy.”
Sarah Jordaan, an assistant professor researching environmental life cycle assessments at Johns Hopkins University, said it’s important to remember that this ruling will not take away from climate momentum in states that are “utilizing their power” to make the shift towards clean energy.
“What it really impacts is the ability to enforce change in the states that are out there that have large fossil fuel resources and that are determined to continue to utilize those technologies that bring those resources,” Jordaan said.
But there is an obvious limit to how much can be done without national intervention. “If we think about the total US portfolio and trying to reduce emissions across the country, there’s only so much you can achieve without having a national strategy,” said David Konisky, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that unless countries across the world aggressively cut emissions, limiting global warming to 1.5C – compared with pre-industrial levels – will be out of reach. If that threshold is exceeded, the human and environmental harms from climate change will become excessively dangerous, affecting nearly every aspect of human life, further driving mass climate migration and making adaptation everywhere increasingly difficult.
Regulating emissions from power plants is a vital piece of climate mitigation, as the power sector is the second largest planet-warming polluter in the US, making up about 25% of national emissions. Now Konisky says the EPA will have to go back to the “drawing board” to try to come up with a federal program that the court may endorse.
In the meantime, experts noted the domino effect of not rapidly eliminating national greenhouse-gas emissions will disproportionately fall to Black, brown and Indigenous communities, as worsening climate crisis deepens racial and social divides.
“There are so many paths to climate justice still, but what we’re seeing is a supreme court that is, I would call them ‘Supreme Climate Deniers’, that are trying to put themselves in a decision-making position,” said US Climate Action Network’s executive director, Keya Chatterjee. “That sends a signal that they will want to make it hard for the federal government to protect people in communities where right now the fossil fuel industry is running the show.”
“Decisions like WV v EPA make it clear just how much the system is rigged against us. A supreme court that sides with the fossil fuel industry over the health and safety of its people is anti-life and illegitimate,” wrote the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate organization.
Climate activists and groups like these are urging the Biden administration, and the president himself, to turn to executive power to enact climate justice policies and expand the number of seats on the supreme court. Emerging from the outcome of this ruling is a call for accountability for a section of the federal government which is operating largely unchecked.
“Any decision that cuts off climate action is outrageous, given that we’re already in a crisis,” Chatterjee said. “So it’s time for them to find their spine, find their guts, and make the decisions they need to make on the climate crisis.
“And it’s also time for them to fix this institution.”