A 6-3 Supreme Court ruling limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power to limit power plant emissions is the latest blow to US efforts to tackle climate change and is adding to a renewed sense of pessimism about the The US political system will counter issue at the federal level.
While the decision, supported by the new Conservative majority in the court, doesn’t nullify efforts by state governments to take action for the planet, it does place a new constraint on the EPA.
It also signals the Supreme Court’s willingness to limit administrative authority at EPA and beyond. The three conservative justices nominated by former President Trump have skewed the court sharply to the right — a shift that could shadow the court for decades.
Republican officials, too, continue to oppose action to address climate change and appear poised to win back control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate this fall.
And even if Democrats retain the Senate, they have so far been unable to pass key climate change legislation because one of their own – Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) – opposed it.
The Biden administration has set a number of ambitious goals related to climate change, including halving the country’s emissions by 2030. President Biden also signed an executive order that would make the federal government carbon neutral by 2050.
But decisions like those made by the Supreme Court this week, as well as the deadlock in Congress, threaten those goals, as does the prospect of a presidential candidacy from Trump, who withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and cast doubt on the science of climate change.
Barry Rabe, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, called the conservative Supreme Court and the sharp division in Congress a “serious set of constraints on the executive branch.”
“I think Congress still has tremendous leeway if they choose to use it,” Rabe said, adding, “I think there are some real questions [about] how far the court restricts federal agencies.”
Democratically-run states can close part of the gap in environmental policy. California enacted the most stringent vehicle emissions standards in the nation, and a dozen others have since adopted them, resulting in a patchwork quilt across the US
“Given the deadlock in Congress, action at the state level is imperative,” said Jason Smerdon, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
However, experts say that state-level measures cannot replace those at the federal level.
“Climate policy is environmental policy and economic policy, and it will most likely require the development of many different policy levers and measures over time to meaningfully address the issue,” said Sasha Mackler, executive director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s energy program.
Congressional Democrats are making another move on a reconciliation package that could include funding for climate programs, including a clean energy tax credit, among other Biden priorities. But the latest attempt to pass the law along party lines was thwarted by opposition from Manchin in December, dampening optimism about his prospects for the time being.
Supporters say the time to act is now, as the House of Representatives could be led by Republicans in January. The GOP only needs a handful of seats to regain majority, and it seems highly unlikely that climate action will be on the agenda of the GOP majority in the House of Representatives.
“They have an extremely tight window of opportunity, and they have to take advantage of it,” Ellen Sciales, communications director for the Sunrise movement, said of the current convention.
Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said a targeted reconciliation package that includes clean energy investments, coupled with the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year, has significant implications for the federal fight against the Climate would have change.
“If they don’t make it, it will become more difficult to scale the market demand for clean energy and deliver it at the required speed,” he said.
But some are more optimistic than others that Congress can take bipartisan action on climate change even if Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives.
Mackler pointed to it The strategy on Climate and Energy, presented by House Republicans last month, arguing that lawmakers from either side of the aisle could put together a package that includes manufacturing and supply as well as energy transition proposals.
“I think there are certainly Republicans who take the challenge of climate change much more seriously,” he said.
Advocates like Sciales are urging Biden to become more involved in Congress’s leadership of a reconciliation package, conscious of the limited time Democrats are guaranteed majorities in both the House and Senate. They are also urging Biden to take other unilateral actions, like halting oil drilling on federal land, something the president actually encouraged more as an immediate fix to high gasoline prices.
“It’s really a short-sighted decision given that to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions we can’t burn what we currently have, let alone create new sources,” Smerdon said.
Experts say industry has a crucial role to play in the shift to clean energy sources. Industry could of course take steps itself, but it is widely recognized that government intervention is needed to sufficiently speed up the process.
Mackler said he remains optimistic about the US’ ability to meet its climate goals through public-private collaboration, citing growth in the solar industry which he said has exceeded expectations a decade ago.
But, he warned, “the longer we wait, the harder and steeper the hill will be to climb.”