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The Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that placed strict limits on the federal government’s ability to regulate climate pollution, dealing a significant blow to the Biden administration’s ambitious plans to reduce the country’s emissions of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.
In West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the court’s conservative majority ruled that the EPA does not have the authority to set industrywide emissions standards for the nation’s power plants. The case centered around a set of rules proposed, though never enacted, by the Obama administration that would have required states to cut their emissions by burning fossil fuels more cleanly and shifting to green energy sources.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that, while the EPA does have the ability to regulate the fossil fuel industry, the agency could not make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence” as a nationwide transition to cleaner power without explicit permission to do so from Congress.
As important as this ruling is for the fight against climate change, legal experts say it could also have broad implications for how much leeway federal agencies have to regulate everything from public health to food safety to workplace standards.
Why there’s debate
President Biden called the ruling “devastating” and said it risks significantly undercutting the nation’s ability to “keep our air clean and combat climate change.” Some experts argue that, by denying the EPA of the power to enforce broad system-level change, the court has made it all but impossible for the U.S. to transition to a greener economy in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Others say the case offers a preview of how the court might block other climate plans in the future. “The Court appoints itself … the decision-maker on climate policy,” liberal justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion. “I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
Though far from celebrating the ruling, some climate activists say it’s not as catastrophic as it may seem for the climate fight. Some say they expected a much more sweeping decision that barred the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases entirely. They argue that, for now, there are still plenty of pathways open for the administration to meaningfully cut America’s emissions. The ruling also didn’t affect state-level decision making, leaving blue states like California free to enact bold climate plans. There’s also optimism that market forces that have caused coal consumption to decline and renewable energy use to skyrocket will continue even without government regulations.
Conservatives, on the other hand, have generally applauded the ruling. While some of that is rooted in climate science denial, many argue that the court is correct in insisting that such critically important decisions should only be made by Congress, not by unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the court’s decision puts even more pressure on Congress to pass “meaningful legislation to address the climate crisis.” After months of inaction on Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better economic plan, Senate Democrats are reportedly inching toward an agreement that, though much less ambitious, could still include a historic investment in green energy.
The court may have made it impossible for the U.S. to meet its climate goals
“It may now be mathematically impossible through available avenues for the US to achieve its goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which is anyway feeling dangerously unambitious in light of recent climate disasters.” — Peter Kalmus, Guardian
The court made the EPA’s job more difficult, but not impossible
“The ruling limits the EPA’s ability to regulate climate change, but leaves enough room that the agency still must try to do so. With these constraints, the Court is forcing the agency to approach the problem of carbon pollution with brute-force tools. In short, the Court has ensured that climate regulation, when it comes, will prove both more cumbersome and more expensive for almost everyone involved.” — Robinson Meyer, Atlantic
The free market is already killing the fossil fuel industry without federal regulations
“The US coal industry is in a long-term decline, and the recent Supreme Court ruling in the West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency case won’t change that.” — Rebecca Leber and Umair Irfan, Vox
Market forces are moving too slowly
“We do see a powerful trend emerging in the private sector both driven by consumers who are demanding cleaner options, that is driving a shift in our energy mix, and toward electric vehicles, but that pace of change is really not sufficient to meet the long-term targets. … For that, you still need policy.” — Sasha Mackler, an energy analyst, to New York Times
The ruling is a setback for the climate movement, but it could have been a death blow
“The West Virginia v. EPA ruling could have been far, far worse, albeit in the same way that a Category 3 hurricane causing tens of thousands of dollars of damages to your home is preferable to a Category 5 storm leveling the whole neighborhood.” — Kate Aronoff, New Republic
The court simply gave authority over climate policy back to Congress, where it belongs
“This decision is widely being reported as a climate change case and a defeat for President Biden’s zero-carbon agenda. … But the Court’s decision, which represents a six-justice majority, did not substantively weigh in on what Congress is empowered to do on this issue. It leaves this question to the people’s representatives and chides an agency that overstepped its bounds.” — Carrie Campbell Severino, National Review
If Democrats want the EPA to regulate emissions, they can pass a law to give the agency that power
“‘Federal agencies must have the authority to regulate carbon!’ every Democrat wailed in response to this week’s ruling. To which the obvious response is: Then give it to them! Pass a law. Do your job.” — Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal
Congress is too broken to take up the task of fighting climate change
“The right-wing SCOTUS majority is now effectively saying that climate change is such a ‘major question’ that if the EPA wants to regulate it in an effective and systematic way, Congress has to pass a new law giving them the specific authority. And, of course, the Court must know that there’s no possibility of that happening in the foreseeable future, given our gridlocked political system.” — Miles Mogulescu, American Prospect
The court is likely just getting started when it comes to blocking emissions reduction strategies
“The court in its opinion did not touch EPA’s ability to regulate other sources of greenhouse gas emissions — for example from vehicles, or methane emissions from oil and gas. But cases on those issues are already circulating in the lower courts and could eventually be elevated to the Supreme Court.” — Ella Nilsen, CNN
The threat of future lawsuits will make to EPA too afraid to take aggressive action
“It sends a signal to EPA that when they make future rules about greenhouse gasses in particular, that they’re going to be highly constrained in what they can do. … This case adds to a darkening cloud of uncertainty about the capacity of the federal government to regulate pollution,” — David Victor, public policy expert, to MIT Technology Review
Excessive pessimism about the ruling undermines the ongoing climate fight
“What I’m not seeing a lot of people get is that the West Va v EPA verdict is a harbinger. It’s the first step not the death blow. Overstating it obscures that, leaving people thinking it’s all over and ill-prepared for what comes next. … Right now the climate movement needs to mobilize like it never has, and messages like ‘the Supreme Court just made it impossible to act on climate’ are both untrue and demoralizing.” — Climate policy expert Amy Westervelt
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