The Supreme Court spent recent weeks triggering political and legal earthquakes across America. But its latest audacious blow could affect the entire planet.
After advancing the Republican Party’s agenda by overturning the federal right to an abortion and loosening gun laws, the conservative court majority built by former President Donald Trump on Thursday limited the government’s capacity to fight climate change.
In a 6-3 ruling, the justices held that US law did not give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set caps on planet-warming emissions from power plants. Given that President Joe Biden’s $500 billion energy and climate plan is stuck in the Senate, the move dealt a significant blow to US global leadership on the issue.
The decision came down at a moment when scientists are warning of the disastrous impacts of accelerating climate change and as raging wildfires and parching droughts in the US show that the crisis is already here. And it was especially dismaying to the White House since it threatened to weaken Biden’s authority on the global stage just as he was wrapping up a successful trip to Europe. The President collected several big wins, including solidifying NATO’s front against Russia, by brokering the entry of two new members – Sweden and Finland – and by orienting the alliance to further another key priority: building a front of international democracies to counter China.
But his credibility on combating climate change – another key foreign policy priority – was dented by the Supreme Court ruling, even if administration lawyers will seek alternative ways to cut emissions and global market forces continue to make coal-fired power stations unprofitable or obsolete.
Global climate action depends on a collective effort. Smaller countries won’t cut their emissions if the biggest polluters, like the US, won’t. The tough political choices required to cut emissions are impossible for all to make if some nations avoid them. And other powers will constrain their own climate targets if they fear losing a competitive advantage to rivals that don’t change their economies to lower reliance on fossil fuels. If Biden’s capacity to reach ambitious US climate goals is compromised, he will be unable to lead by example and an already creaky plan to avert catastrophic warming across the globe could be in jeopardy.
The United Nations was quick to warn Thursday that the Supreme Court’s decision threatened to disrupt efforts to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2% while pursuing efforts to maintain a 1.5% threshold.
“Decisions like today’s in the US, or any other major emitting economy, make it harder to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, for a healthy, livable planet, especially as we need to accelerate the phase out of coal and the transition to renewable energies,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
“But we also need to remember that an emergency as global in nature as climate change requires a global response, and the actions of a single nation should not and cannot make or break whether we reach our climate objectives.”
US climate change leadership has often been erratic
The world is used to US gyrations on climate change.
President Barack Obama, for example, helped negotiate the Paris climate accord, which came into force in 2016. But his successor, President Donald Trump, who had previously declared climate change to be a Chinese hoax, walked out on the deal. Declaring “America is back,” Biden took steps to rejoin the agreement within hours of being sworn in as president last year.
The Supreme Court’s move throws a wrench in Biden’s ambitious plans to halve US greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and to create a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
“This has certainly made it much, much more difficult without a doubt,” Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, told CNN on Thursday after the Supreme Court opinion was released.
In essence, the court ruled that the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA the authority to regulate the carbon emissions from power plants that contribute to climate change. Because the law was enacted in 1970, it did not contain detailed instructions for the agency to combat climate change, which, at the time, was not a widespread global concern.
Chief Justice John Roberts argued in his majority opinion that the act could not be used by the government as authority to introduce curbs to combat climate change.
“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,’” Roberts wrote in his majority opinion. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”
This is just the latest case when the Supreme Court’s narrow, literal reading of the Constitution and US law has appeared to pay little attention to conditions in the modern world and how the majority’s decisions would impact them.
Last week’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion, for instance, has created chaotic aftereffects and a patchwork of laws across the nation. An earlier decision to strike down a law in New York state that placed limits on the right of Americans to carry guns outside the home came as crime is rising in a nation already awash with guns.
In her dissent to the Roberts opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, who was nominated by Obama, described a dire picture of a warming world with intense hurricanes, drought, the destruction of ecosystems and floods that consume large swathes of the eastern seaboard. And she argued that the Congress had already granted the EPA the authority to mitigate “catastrophic harms.”
“Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,” she wrote, accusing the conservative justices of making themselves the “decision maker on climate policy.”
“I cannot think of many things more frightening,” Kagan concluded.
Republicans welcome the court’s reining in of bureaucracy
Leading conservative politicians immediately welcomed the decision, heralding it as a win for constraining government overreach in Washington by unelected bureaucrats.
“We are pleased this case returned the power to decide one of the major environmental issues of the day to the right place to decide it: the US Congress, comprised of those elected by the people to serve the people,” said Patrick Morrisey, the Republican attorney general of West Virginia, a major coal-producing state.
“This is about maintaining the separation of powers, not climate change,” Morrisey said.
The problem, however, with the Supreme Court returning issues to Congress is lawmakers’ difficulty in getting anything significant done. The country’s polarization and the Senate filibuster rules have made advancing major bills on key issues – like voting rights and gun regulation – a challenge in a narrowly divided Senate. The recently passed gun legislation, for example, fell well short of the substantial overhauls many Democrats would have liked to have seen. But they had to pass something that could get 10 GOP votes, even though Democrats nominally have a monopoly on political power in Washington.
And there is no appetite among Republicans to tackle climate change. The court’s right-wing majority is therefore playing an important role in asserting a conservative political agenda to thwart any change a Democratic Congress and President could enact.
That’s hard for foreigners to understand when it comes to an issue as urgent as climate change. But it ensures that any efforts to commit the United States to the global climate fight will inevitably lead to years of political battles in Washington. And it is yet another example of how the country’s polarization is threatening its global leadership role.