On Tuesday, Feb. 09, the Supreme Court halted Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his most significant effort to fight climate change, from going into effect. The court was divided 5-4 on the issue.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the plan in August, which called for each state to submit plans by 2018 for the removal of 870 million tons of carbon dioxide in total from the emissions of power stations by the year 2030, and to show progress by 2022. The proposal calls for less coal and more wind energy. These goals are an essential part of the United States’ promised emissions cuts, which were proposed at the Paris climate conference.
29 states, however, have filed a lawsuit arguing that the EPA regulations set forth in the legislation are unconstitutionally restrictive. The suit will set the plan back at least several months, if it is not discarded entirely.
The government cannot implement the plan until an appeals court “confirms…the legal justification for the Clean Power Plan” (Melissa McHenry, spokeswoman for American Electric Power Company). The EPA originally planned to enforce a September 6 deadline for states to submit emission reduction plans. In the current situation, this will be impossible.
The deal must be signed by 2017. In the meantime, widespread domestic skepticism surrounding the agreement may cause other nations to falter in their support of the international attempt to address climate change. As one of the global leaders in the movement toward cleaner energy, the United States cannot afford to show signs of doubt and indecision.
As the court stalls the EPA rules, climate change continues to affect not just the U.S., but the entire globe.
Obama Press Secretary Josh Earnest confidently declares that “the Clean Power Plan is based on a strong legal and technical foundation.” Whether this is the case or not, the case for clean power does not yet have a strong foundation. It is our responsibility, as the world’s second largest polluter, not only to create this base, but to build on it.
The final ruling will not occur until 2017, meaning that the future of environmental protection lies in the hands of the nation’s next president. Based on the range of candidates, the United States could lead the future of climate change prevention in any number of directions: on one extreme, Bernie Sanders could come into office and, in his words, “create a national environmental and climate justice plan that recognizes the heightened public health risks faced by low-income and minority communities.”
The other option is far more grim.
Donald Trump once tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Left in Trump’s hands, the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions are liable to multiply instead of decline.
Now that the plan is out of Obama’s hands, it has the potential to collapse before it even gets started, bringing the international movement toward clean power down with it.
Although the lawsuit will undoubtedly do more harm than good, its timing is ideal. In the midst of heated presidential debates, a legal battle over an environmental policy will bring climate change issues into the spotlight during a time when all eyes are on U.S. national policies. Although the suit has already delayed any action toward energy conservation, it is bound to, at the very least, raise public consciousness. What is to come out of this greater understanding, however, depends heavily on the media’s approach to the issue.
It is not the plan’s goals—to shift the country away from coal as its main source of power and toward natural gas, wind and solar power—that draw the majority of the right’s objections, but its structure. The EPA calls for the states to meet specific targets, while opponents want more leeway.
In the short term, the EPA says that the plan will prevent “thousands of premature deaths and many thousands…[of] asthma attacks and hospitalizations.” In the long term, the benefits are innumerable. If we do not take action, however, it is highly likely that the ocean will eventually swallow countless cities along the coast, resulting in a worldwide refugee crisis.
The Clean Power Plan is aimed at the electricity sector of the power industry, which generates 31 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Prior to the lawsuit, the United States was scheduled to cut emissions by 28 percent before 2025. The reduction of fuel usage, by the year 2030, would be equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road.
It is impossible to predict, at this point, which course of action the Supreme Court will take. In 2013 and 2014, the court upheld the EPA’s greenhouse gas and pollution regulations, which bodes well for the Clean Power Plan. Last year however, the court rejected the agency’s rule on mercury emissions, after concluding that the EPA did not consider the costs of mercury regulation.
The Clean Air Act of 1963 further complicates the court’s ruling on the Clean Power Plan. The three provisions of the Clean Air Act require the EPA to set standards for six pollutants, known as “criteria pollutants”; to govern 200 pollutants that have been labelled “hazardous air pollutants”; and to regulate any air pollutant not covered under the first two provisions.
In 1990, however, Congress passed two amendments to the act. The House of Representatives version can be interpreted to prevent catch-all regulations from being applied to power plants that are already regulated under the first two provisions. The Senate version, on the other hand, does not mention this at all, implying that the EPA can apply further regulations to power plants that already produce criteria pollutants or hazardous air pollutants. Congress included both versions in the final bill, which was signed by George H.W. Bush. Congress must choose, over the next several months, which version of the amendment to accept.
The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia changes the overall dynamic of the Supreme Court. Scalia sculpted the Court’s fundamental outlook on environmental cases, typically limiting the potential actions of environmental groups. Unlike many of his predecessors, he tended to separate legality from environmental impact, leading him to side with the right wing on such issues. Todd Aagaard, vice dean and professor at Villanova University School of Law, declares that Scalia was often “following his nose, and often his nose did not like the environmental outcome” (Environment and Energy Publishing, “How Scalia Reshaped Environmental Law,” 02.15.2016).
Scalia’s rulings affected not only the Supreme Court, but lower courts as well. His clear-cut decisions on environmental issues shaped the country’s fundamental stance on environmental law.
From November 30 until December 11 of last year, the United Nations held the Climate Change Conference in Paris, which finally turned the world’s attention toward the global warming crisis. The U.S. must continue to push forward, both in order to upholds its end of the bargain, and to sustain the momentum that the movement has gathered over the past few months. If the United States falters, other nations will too.
In the meantime, the Clean Power Plan is on hold until the Supreme Court comes to a conclusion this summer on the legality of the act. A negative ruling could set us back, both as a nation and as a planet, indefinitely.