Supreme Court erodes federal regulation of carbon emissions in setback for Biden

Mayank Chhaya –

Mayank Chayya

The Supreme Court ruling today [June 30] stripping the federal government’s ability to control carbon emissions from power plants reads as if it was written by two sides from two different planets. While the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. barely acknowledges the terrible impact of climate change, the dissenting opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan heavily focuses on it from the get-go.

The result is, as it has been in major recent cases, a ruling along sharply partisan lines between the six arch-conservative and three liberal justices.

Justice Roberts wrote, “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,’” even as he added, “a decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

In contrast Justice Kagan 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. The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

The supermajority ruling that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants capped off a series of deeply partisan rulings, including the elimination of abortion as a constitutional right, significant expansion of gun rights and lowering the wall between church and state.

The decision over climate change was a fourth dramatic setback for President Joe Biden’s largely liberal agenda. Although he said he would keep up with his climate agenda, he also acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s ruling “risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean.”

The president also called it “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.” “We cannot and will not ignore the danger to public health and existential threat the climate crisis poses,” he said.

The four rulings in the run-up to the July 4th weekend become emblematic of how fractious and divided America has become under an avowedly partisan Supreme Court.

This particular case was related to the Clean Air Act and whether Congress has given the EPA overarching authority to regulate emissions from power plants. It is in that context that the chief justice, while obliquely recognizing that capping off carbon dioxide emissions may be a sensible solution to the climate crisis, also said a decision of this magnitude cannot be left to an agency like the EPA.

Of course, the ruling does not wholly eliminate the EPA’s ability to regulate the energy sector, but it certainly stops climate approaches such as cap and trade.

The ruling is expected to significantly undermine President Biden’s ambitious agenda of cutting greenhouse gases by almost half by the end of this decade. That plan was announced by him in April last year. That plan’s announcement coincided with a global climate summit that he hosted as part of his politically fraught reversal that returned the United States to a global fight to combat climate change, something his predecessor Donald Trump had cast aside.

Close to 40 countries, including India and China, had participated in that summit.

Four months before the November mid-term elections it would seem as if the deeply ideological Supreme Court has handed the Republican Party some dramatic legal victories of the kind perhaps even the party leaders may not have expected. The party can now flaunt the elimination of abortion as a constitutional right, significant expansion of gun rights, serious dismantling of the wall between church and state and environmental regulation as its accomplishments before the mid-term elections making it that much harder for Biden’s Democratic Party to win in November.