In July of 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States, through its ruling on West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency, undermined the safety and well-being of millions of Americans. By ruling against the EPA’s administrative mandate, the Supreme Court has created a roadblock ahead of federal agencies’ climate action initiatives. The conservative majority of the court argued that the EPA did not have the authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. This decision sets a dangerous precedent that could prevent further attempts by state and federal agencies to regulate carbon emissions from economic sectors, effectively limiting the emissions reduction capability of the U.S. These setbacks highlight the government’s inability to exercise leadership in fighting climate change domestically and internationally.
The Ruling, the Regulation, and The Major Questions Doctrine
The case of W.V. v. EPA was initialized by the re-evaluation of the Clean Power Plan, a policy launched during the Obama administration in 2015. The Clean Power Plan issued national standards to “cut significant amounts of power plant carbon pollution and pollutants … laying the foundation for the long-term strategy needed to tackle the threat of climate change.” The Obama administration saw the policy as an important step toward reducing carbon emissions from power plants because of its flexibility and realistic standards while maintaining an affordable electricity rate.
Notably, the plan aimed to address the concerns raised by EPA’s findings on the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. On December 7th, 2009, the EPA confirmed what most scientists made overwhelmingly clear about the country’s carbon emissions: the glaring buildup of greenhouse gasses due to “human activity” is hazardous to both the environment and “public health and welfare.” Included in the plan was an enforcement mechanism that gave the EPA authority to regulate the carbon emissions of power plants across the power plant sector. Thus, the Clean Power Plan contradicts the Supreme Court’s reasoning behind their W.V. v. EPA case decision.
Upon re-examination of the Clean Power Plan, the six conservative justices in the Supreme Court argued that the regulatory power granted to the EPA wasn’t explicitly given by Congress, notably citing the infamous “major questions doctrine.” This doctrine is a controversial legal concept recently used by some Supreme Court justices to undermine the administrative ability of some U.S. federal agencies, particularly those targeted by American Neo-Conservative scrutiny like the EPA. If an agency seeks to make a decision of “major national significance,” meaning it has powerful national implications, then the decision must be supported by “clear statutory authority.” In other words, the major questions doctrine requires Congress to be explicit about who has authority to make “sweeping” economic or political decisions.
After embracing the doctrine, the six justices found that (1) the power to regulate the emissions of the entire power sector was economically and politically significant and (2) the EPA lacked authority clearly appointed by Congress and was not allowed to enforce the regulations in the Clean Power Plan. The conservative justices believe that if unchallenged, the EPA would be overstepping congressional authority by enforcing nationwide action to move away from coal power generation and towards cleaner sources of electricity production like solar and wind.
The Supreme Court Decision’s Impact on EPA’s Authority
Although the court decided that the EPA did not have the authority to regulate the entire power sector, it can still enforce regulations on specific power plants. In other words, the decision restricts “how far that authority reaches.” Thus, the EPA can regulate and reduce emissions incrementally rather than with a broad stroke, particularly with a few mitigation measures like heat rate improvements, co-firing with natural gas or wood chips, and carbon capture, which all lower emissions effectively.
Ultimately, the restrictions now faced by the EPA will further hurt the embattled Biden administration’s legislative agenda. Biden noted the importance of domestic climate action. Before taking office, he made it clear that strong action on climate change was a priority and his administration would bring about historic policies and measures. Biden’s Build Back Better plan included major climate change legislation but has failed to gain Democrat and Republican support in both Congress and the Senate. As of August 7, 2022, the plan has been reworked into the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill that, while historically significant, still contains many pitfalls in its steps to combat climate change. A decision like this from the Supreme Court adds to this administration’s failure to act seriously on the issue of climate change.
International Implications and Lackluster U.S. Leadership
Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s inability to come through on strong climate action is not new. As a key player in the global economy, the U.S. has significant anti-climate action corporate interests —both domestic and international. Such a profoundly capitalist flaw aggravates the already vulnerable international community, affecting some countries much worse than others. More often than not, serious efforts to reduce and regulate emissions will not bolster or boost the global economy in the way we know fossil fuels, environmental exploitation, and extractivism will. So the U.S., like many other major emitters of greenhouse gasses, struggles to see an incentive to make broad, deep commitments to climate change action, especially if it will undermine their corporate interests.
Notably, these corporate interests are not the same as the interests of the American public. Capitalism fosters a system of winners and losers that links to inequality. Marginalized communities based on race, class, gender, and other intersecting identities are disadvantaged in the capitalist system and disproportionately affected by climate crises. This underlying issue has already been demonstrated in catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the Category 5 hurricane swept through the gulf coast of the United States, devastating New Orleans and the surrounding regions. Among all the affected communities, it quickly became clear that pre-existing inequalities led to a complete inability to protect or support the most vulnerable communities to climate change. Research on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina found that people with intersectional identities based on race and gender, specifically African-American women, were among the top disproportionately affected communities. It is increasingly clear that capitalist interests in the U.S. pose major domestic challenges for marginalized communities. So, how can the U.S. lead climate action globally if the government can barely do anything within its own jurisdiction?
Calling the U.S. a leader in climate action would be a mistake, but ignoring its influence and power on the international stage proves to be a considerable error. The country’s power and influence are what make their hypocrisy so dangerous. It demonstrates that a powerful country can get away with stating a commitment to climate action, fall through on efforts, and not be held accountable — an arrangement made ever clear by inconsistent U.S. dedication to the Paris Agreement. In other words, the Supreme Court’s decision enables and rewards dangerous behavior. Dangerous because it is not just the integrity of governments on the line when one fails to act against climate change, but the possibility of collective action at the international level.
Edited by Bethlehem Samson