COMMENTARY | Next on the SCOTUS Chopping Block: Meaningful Ways to Address Climate Change

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The Supreme Court of the United States had a busy term for 2021, managing to deliver some heavy blows in May and June to abortion access, religious rights, gun laws, and more. One opinion will have detrimental consequences on our ability as a nation to address one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.

On June 30, 2022, the Supreme Court released its opinion in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. With a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that Congress did not, in fact, give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to reduce power plant emissions as proposed by the Clean Power Plan, a now-repealed plan put into place by the Obama Administration. The Court uses the “major questions doctrine” as a main point of argument. The doctrine demands that Congress explicitly decides on significant changes to the US economy rather than decide on broad strokes of the changes while leaving the details to regulatory agencies like the EPA. The ruling further narrows the authority of the EPA to set broad plans that shift electricity generation away from coal and to further help mitigate climate change.

This ruling severely affects America’s efforts to fight climate change, an issue that will only worsen unless we start cutting emissions drastically and immediately. According to Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, this decision “flies in the face of established science and will set back the US’s commitment to keep global temperature below 1.5C,” a reference to the internationally-agreed-upon goal to limit global heating before it becomes truly disastrous.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported earlier this year that “nations and industries need to make faster, deeper cuts to heat-trapping pollution,” and that “average annual greenhouse gasses in the last decade were the highest in human history.” The report, which describes what scientists consider to be the most effective steps, lists some important steps toward keeping global average temperatures from “rising to catastrophic levels”: renewable energy, like solar and wind power; carbon sponges, like plants and soils, to remove some of the carbon dioxide emissions already in the atmosphere; and changing human lifestyles. If we don’t manage to limit global warming to the international goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will see increasingly dangerous heat waves, floods, and storms, which will be detrimental to millions of people.

Although the drastic effects of climate change will be felt by everyone, already socially vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected. The EPA reported in 2021 that Black and African-American individuals, compared to all other demographic groups, would face higher impacts of climate change for all six impacts analyzed and are forty percent  more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increase in extreme-temperature-related deaths. Hispanic and Latine populations already have high participation in weather-exposed industries and, with global warming, are forty-three percent more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures.

“The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

Considering all of this, and that drastic changes should have been made much earlier, this Supreme Court opinion couldn’t have come at a worse time. At first glance, it might not seem like a crucial situation. But by putting the power in Congress’ hands, the Court has only complicated the process to get anything done. Trusting Congress to make these decisions, instead of the climate scientists and experts who work at the regulatory agencies, is a risky move, especially since landmark legislation has stalled in Congress, especially in our particular polarized times.

The US is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gasses and, although the Biden Administration has made big promises to work on emissions, the US continues to be slow to implement a comprehensive plan. And, with this ruling as a latest example, we’ve seen over and over again the extreme political right push an agenda that ties the hands of scientists and experts fighting the climate crisis while promoting the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

In her dissent to the Supreme Court’s recent decision, which was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan commented, “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.” She continues, “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.”

We need action now. We need the administration to start making clear commitments toward a comprehensive climate action plan before it is too late. But we also need to raise our voices to make sure they give us the future we want and need. This ruling and our government’s continued inaction can be disheartening, but we need to continue to encourage local, immediate action and to keep fighting.

Humanists recognize that this is the only world we have and, although time is running out, it can still be saved. Humans are responsible for creating the climate crisis and it is only through strong and sustained personal and collective human action that the crisis can be stopped. The threat of climate change is an inherently humanist issue and we must face it as a community.

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