Absurd US court ruling leaves climate leadership in limbo
5 July 2022
Opinion: An absurd court ruling in the US leaves climate leadership in limbo, says Kevin Trenberth.
The US Supreme Court decision limiting the power of environmental regulators to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants is strange at best and, to me, absurd.
As an expert on the science of climate change, I’ve seen these types of legal proceedings up close. I was involved in the early stages of this case, providing expert information to the lower court just over-ruled by the Supreme Court.
What we’re seeing is the success of a very well-funded minority with a strong anti-regulatory agenda. It’s eight months since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a scientific report telling the world that changes in the climate were widespread, rapid, intensifying, and unprecedented in thousands of years.
“Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C will be beyond reach,” the panel said, noting that “it is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change”.
No rapid, large-scale reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and methane are happening, despite the pledges of many countries, including New Zealand, to make cuts and even get to “net-zero” by 2050 or soon thereafter.
What we’re seeing is the success of a very well-funded minority with a strong anti-regulatory agenda
Indeed, a 1.5°C increase in global mean surface temperatures since pre-industrial times is guaranteed. We’re at 1.1°C, and at current rates, will pass the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C in about 2032. Big advances in mitigating emissions may delay that a bit, but it will happen.
Unfortunately, some countries recently started going in the wrong direction on emissions, perhaps in part because of the disruptions to energy supplies connected with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The US, which is responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions over history than any other country, has made very limited progress in spite of strong attempts by President Joe Biden’s administration. The Republican Party’s control of Congress is a major roadblock.
Now, the Supreme Court has limited the regulatory capabilities of the Environmental Protection Agency. As I say, the ruling was strange, at best.
The case originated from the introduction of a Clean Power Plan when Barack Obama was in the White House. This was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a set of tougher pollution standards, especially for coal-fired power plants.
States were to implement the plan, which was remarkably flexible. Each state had its own carbon target. The aims were more efficient coal plants, effective use of gas plants, increased renewables, and improved efficiency. When justifying the plan, the Environmental Protection Agency also calculated the health benefits of reducing smog-forming pollution.
The Clean Power Plan was never put into effect although reductions in emissions happened anyway.
When President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency decided to rescind those standards, I contributed to the arguments against. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Trump rule that had effectively gutted the plan.
In the latest development, the Supreme Court took up the appeal against this decision even though the Clean Power Plan was not in effect.
At the time any legislation is passed, regulations cannot anticipate future changes in society and conditions, such as climate change. The retroactive non-progressive Supreme Court view also applies to women’s rights, and guns. In the latest ruling, it’s held that the EPA did not even have the authority to draft the Clean Power Plan. The arguments were largely anti-regulatory and, to my mind, absurd.
The decision is designed to tie the hands of EPA scientists to fight pollution and to protect air, water and our families from the climate crisis.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing a dissent for the three liberal justices in the decision issued on June 30, said: “Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions."
So, this further ties the hands of the Biden Administration, for now. A key question is whether the Democrats can secure enough seats in Congressional elections in November to be able to make changes.
Without US leadership on cutting emissions, climate change will continue apace, and we will get an even more extreme version of climate change across weather, sea levels, heat waves, and wild fires. Look out!
Kevin Trenberth is a Distinguished Scholar at the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and an Honorary Academic in the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland. First published in Newsroom on 2 July 2022.
Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
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