Supreme Court delivers devastating blow to US climate action

The US Supreme Court has delivered a severe blow today 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 favor of the plaintiffs in the case, West Virginia v. EPA.

It is a significant win for the plaintiffs, nearly two dozen 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 EPA did not have the authority to create system-wide regulations on power plant emissions as the Obama administration’s emissions-tackling Clean Power Plan (CPP) had attempted to do using a specific section 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.

“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 three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer who began 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.

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

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.

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.

This is a breaking story, more to follow

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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