What the Supreme Court's EPA ruling means for the fight against climate change

When former President Richard Nixon proposed the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, one provision of his proposal was that it would work with the states to establish and enforce standards for air and water quality.

At the time, climate change was a term few scientists — and even fewer politicians — were aware of, even though global temperatures had already started to rise due to the pollution mankind was pumping into the atmosphere.

In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court conceded Thursday that the Obama-era EPA standard called the Clean Power Plan was intended to curb the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing climate change and which scientists have long warned threatens life on Earth as we know it.

“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.

The "but" clause to that statement, however, revealed the chasm that stands between acknowledging that climate change is a problem and actually doing something about it.

“But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme," Roberts concluded.

A view of the bas-relief of the portico of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 30, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The court sided with the coal-producing state of West Virginia, which sued the EPA, saying the agency had overstepped its authority in trying to enforce the Clean Air Act by limiting power plant emissions.

As Justice Elena Kagan put it in her dissent, the court "appoints itself – instead of Congress or the expert agency – the decision-maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening."

Climate activists, too, questioned this new restriction on the authority of federal agency charged with overseeing the nation's environmental health.

"This Court is deliberately handcuffing our ability to respond to the most serious crisis humankind has faced," Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research and a former Department of Justice official, said in a written statement. "And it is doing so recklessly, during the most crucial decade we have to try to limit carbon’s impact on the heat of our planet, the sustainability of our oceans and agriculture, and our ability as a people to survive the climate changes that are underway."

After four years of former President Donald Trump, who has described climate change as a "hoax" perpetrated by the Chinese government in an attempt to ruin the United States' economy, President Biden announced in April 2021 that the U.S. would seek to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

That ambitious goal seemed achievable, if only because Biden's Build Back Better agenda — which contained the bulk of the administration's proposals to advance the transition reducing the country's reliance on fossil fuels — had yet to be scuttled by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and the EPA's authority to limit power plant emissions still stood.

To say that the U.S. emissions goal is now in doubt is an understatement. The burden of addressing the threat of climate change has now shifted to Congress, where no Republicans, let alone Manchin, voiced support for BBB.

A strong plume of exhaust belches into the air from the Harrison Power Station.
Exhaust rises from the stacks of the Harrison Power Station in Haywood, W. Va., in 2018. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Still, Biden said in a statement Thursday that he would continue to use his executive authority to try to achieve his emissions goals.

"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," he said in his statement.

As the New York Times reported earlier this month, West Virginia v. EPA was part of a broader campaign by conservatives to wage war on environmental regulations nationwide. Part of that effort has been the selection of judges to the federal bench who are more sympathetic to the energy industry than government regulators. The legal challenges to regulating carbon emissions, in other words, will not stop.

Given the enormity of the climate change problem, activists say that voters, elected officials, the business community and the scientific community will all need to be on the same page in proceeding with the urgent business of curbing emissions. Such a consensus has yet to emerge, even among left-leaning voters.

In a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll that asked Democrats to name "the most important issue to you when thinking about this year's election," only 5% said climate change. In a 2021 Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 67% of Republicans said that climate change "is not an emergency."

How the world got to this juncture, and who is to blame, is almost beside the point. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reiterated in its April report, the window of opportunity to keep average global temperatures from exceeding the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is quickly closing.

“The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that accompanied the findings of thousands of scientists. “This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”

The consequences of climate change can be seen everywhere. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide continues to set new records, and it won't take a pause until enough members of Congress are elected who are willing to reinstitute the regulatory regime just upended by the Supreme Court.