The Supreme Court has spent the past several weeks unleashing political and legal earthquakes across America. But his latest bold move could affect the entire planet.
After advancing the Republican Party’s agenda of overturning federal abortion rights and easing gun laws, the court’s conservative majority built by former President Donald Trump on Thursday limited government capacity to combat climate change.
In a 6-3 decision, the justices ruled that US law does not give the Environmental Protection Agency the power to set caps on global warming emissions from power plants. With President Joe Biden’s $500 billion energy and climate plan stalled in the Senate, the move dealt a blow to US global leadership on the issue.
The decision came at a time when scientists are warning of the dire effects of accelerating climate change and as raging wildfires and droughts across the United States show the crisis is already here. And it was particularly appalling for the White House because it threatened to weaken Biden’s authority on the world stage as he wrapped up a successful trip to Europe. The President has won several major victories, including solidifying NATO’s front against Russia, negotiating the entry of two new members – Sweden and Finland – and steering the alliance towards another key priority: the construction of a front of international democracies to counter China.
But its credibility in tackling climate change — another key foreign policy priority — has been shaken by the Supreme Court’s ruling, even though the administration’s lawyers will be looking for other ways to cut emissions and that global market forces continue to render coal-fired power plants unprofitable or obsolete.
Global climate action depends on a collective effort. Small countries will not reduce their emissions if the biggest polluters, like the United States, do not. The tough policy choices needed to reduce emissions are impossible for everyone to make if some countries avoid them. And other powers will limit their own climate targets if they fear losing competitive advantage to rivals who don’t change their economies to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. If Biden’s ability to meet 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 on Thursday that the Supreme Court’s ruling threatened to disrupt efforts to keep global temperature rise below 2% while continuing efforts to maintain a 1.5% threshold. .
“Decisions like those taken today in the United States, or any other major emitting economy, make it more difficult to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, for a healthy and livable planet, especially since we must accelerate the phase-out of coal and the transition to renewable energies,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
“But we must also remember that an emergency of such a global nature as climate change requires a global response, and the actions of one nation should not and cannot make or break if we meet our climate goals.”
US leadership on climate change has often been erratic
The world is used to American swings on climate change.
President Barack Obama, for example, helped broker the Paris climate accord, which came into force in 2016. But his successor, President Donald Trump, who previously said climate change was a Chinese hoax , abandoned the agreement. Stating that “America is back,” Biden took steps to join the deal hours after being sworn in as president last year.
Supreme Court ruling throws wrench in Biden’s ambitious plans to halve U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and create a zero-emissions economy net by 2050.
“It certainly made things much, much more difficult no doubt,” Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, told CNN on Thursday after the Supreme Court’s opinion was released. .
Essentially, the court ruled that the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA the authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants that contribute to climate change. Because the law was signed into law in 1970, it did not contain detailed instructions for the agency to address climate change, which at the time was not a widespread global concern.
Chief Justice John Roberts argued in his majority opinion that the law could not be used by the government as an authority to introduce the brakes to tackle climate change.
“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a national transition away from using coal to generate electricity may be a ‘sense solution to the crisis of the day,'” Roberts wrote in his opinion. majority. “But it’s not plausible that Congress gave the EPA the authority to enact such a regulatory scheme on its own.”
This is just the latest case where the Supreme Court’s narrow and literal reading of the Constitution and US law seems to pay little attention to modern world conditions and how majority decisions would impact them.
Last week’s reversal of the constitutional right to abortion, for example, created chaotic aftermath and a patchwork of laws across the country. An earlier decision to strike down a law in New York state that limited Americans’ right to carry guns outside the home came as crime rises in a country already awash with guns.
In her dissent from the Roberts opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, who was appointed by Obama, painted a dire picture of a warming world with intense hurricanes, drought, ecosystem destruction and floods that consume vast stretches of the east coast. And she argued that Congress had already granted the EPA authority to mitigate “catastrophic damage.”
‘Anything else this Court can know, it has no idea how to fight climate change,’ she wrote, accusing conservative justices of being ‘the maker of climate policy “.
“I can’t think of many scarier things,” Kagan concluded.
Republicans hail court’s mastery of bureaucracy
Leading conservative politicians immediately hailed the decision, heralding it as a victory to limit the overreach of government in Washington by unelected bureaucrats.
“We are thrilled that this case has returned the power to decide one of the greatest environmental issues of the day to the right place to decide it: the United States Congress, made up of people elected by the people to serve the people,” said Patrick Morrisey, the Republican Attorney General of West Virginia, a major coal-producing state.
“It’s about maintaining the separation of powers, not climate change,” Morrisey said.
The problem, however, with the Supreme Court sending questions back to Congress is the difficulty for lawmakers to do anything of significance. The country’s polarization and filibuster Senate rules have made advancing major bills on key issues — like voting rights and gun regulations — a challenge in a tightly divided Senate. Recently passed gun legislation, for example, fell far short of the substantial revisions that many Democrats would have liked to see. But they needed to pass something that could get 10 GOP votes, even though Democrats theoretically have a monopoly on political power in Washington.
And there’s no appetite among Republicans to fight climate change. The Court’s right-wing majority therefore plays an important role in asserting a conservative policy agenda to thwart any changes that a Democratic Congress and President might enact.
It’s hard for outsiders to understand when it comes to an issue as pressing as climate change. But it ensures that any effort to engage the United States in the global climate fight will inevitably lead to years of political battles in Washington. And it’s yet another example of how the country’s polarization threatens its role as a global leader.