Supreme Court cripples the US government's power to fight climate change

The Supreme Court has ruled in a 6-3 decision that the EPA should not regulate greenhouse gas emissions at a national scale.
The Supreme Court has ruled in a 6-3 decision that the EPA should not regulate greenhouse gas emissions at a national scale. (Image credit: Getty)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday (June 30) severely limited the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, in a 6-3 ruling split between the court's conservative majority and liberal minority.

Ruling on the case, called West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the court's six conservative justices held that the EPA — which was established in 1970 to curb widespread pollution and implement national environmental protection policies — does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions on a national scale without express approval from the U.S. Congress.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court's majority opinion.

"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, quoting an earlier case. But, 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."

Dissenting on behalf of the court's three liberal justices, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the court had effectively substituted its own ill-informed judgment for the EPA's.

"Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change," Kagan wrote. "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."

The case in question is based on an EPA policy called the Clean Power Plan, which President Barack Obama unveiled in 2015. The plan proposed three carbon-reducing strategies for states, including a shift to more renewable energy and a call to use more natural gas in order to retire heavily polluting coal plants, Vice.com reported. However, the Supreme Court blocked the Clean Power Plan from coming into effect in 2016.

The plan was never enacted, nor was an alternative EPA emissions policy successfully put into place by the Trump or Biden administrations. However, coal companies and several Republican-dominated states, including West Virginia, continued to fight against the hypothetical provisions in the now-defunct plan, finally bringing their complaints to the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA.

While some legal scholars argued that the court should not hear the case at all, as the plaintiffs were fighting a regulatory plan that never took effect, the court agreed to hear the case and rule on whether the EPA should have the authority to enact any similar greenhouse gas emissions-reducing policies on a national scale in the future.

The court's ruling — that the EPA cannot mandate nationwide energy policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions without specific approval from Congress — threatens to cripple the U.S. government's ability to fight climate change, according to the dissent.

The U.S. is the world's second-biggest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, after China. President Joe Biden's goals of converting the U.S. power grid to clean energy by 2035 and cutting greenhouse emissions in half by the end of this decade now look remote, legal scholars told The New York Times.

"By insisting instead that an agency can promulgate an important and significant climate rule only by showing 'clear congressional authorization' at a time when the court knows that Congress is effectively dysfunctional, the court threatens to upend the national government's ability to safeguard the public health and welfare," Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard University, told The New York Times.

Biden's climate agenda has already been blocked several times by the 50 Republican members of the U.S. Senate, plus Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia who has personal financial ties to the coal industry, The Times previously reported. According to the new Supreme Court ruling, all hopes for significant climate action in the U.S. now rest on this divided Congress.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.