By The Herald Editorial Board
When faced with decisions from “the court of last resort” — as the U.S. Supreme Court is nicknamed for its final word on court cases — objections can seem, well, moot.
So the level of disappointment for many if not most Americans with a slate of recent Supreme Court decisions — on access to abortion, gun safety, the separation of church and state and most recently for a federal agency’s ability to regulate power plant emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — is compounded by a sense that restoration of past precedents and laws will involve a long climb back, if that climb is possible at all.
For two of the cases — the decision overturning Roe v. Wade and the second limiting the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate power plants’ carbon emissions — that disappointment, because of the breadth of their effects, can devolve into anger; or worse, resignation.
The decision to overturn Roe has deservedly garnered attention because of the inequities already being levied on the lives, health and well-being of women and their families across the country.
Yet, the court’s decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, rejecting its authority though the Clean Power Plan, could have even greater implications as the world confronts the ever-worsening crisis of climate change that threatens worldwide catastrophe from droughts, polar and glacial ice melt, rising seas, loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, water scarcity and an increasing pace of weather disasters, including heat waves, flooding, storms, wildfires, epidemics and more.
Already facing a daunting task to meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and encourage other nations to keep their own commitments — the June 30 decision further complicates the efforts of the Biden administration and the U.S. government to reduce emissions and limit the damage and costs of climate change.
The urgency in addressing greenhouse gases — in particular carbon dioxide — has not been overstated. In 1970 — when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which the EPA had attempted to use to regulate power plants — global carbon emissions, recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were measured at 325 parts per million (ppm). As of May of this year, carbon levels had reached 421 ppm, the highest level in human history and in the last four million years.
Even as the amount of electricity from coal-fired power plants has fallen to its lowest level since 1972, generating a little less than a fifth of the nation’s electricity, emissions from power plants, including an increasing amount from natural gas, account for 30 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions. The Biden administration had aimed to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and have a carbon-free power sector by 2035.
The decision, while not fully scuttling regulation by the EPA, severely limits and complicates future action, the EPA Administrator Michael Regan said last week.
“Power plants play a significant role in this larger picture and that’s why the Supreme Court’s ruling is disappointing, because it’s slowing down the momentum of not only curtailing climate change impacts, but the globally competitive aspects that this country can seize to create jobs and grow economic opportunities,” he said.
Still, there’s a second track where efforts can still move forward, said Kelly Hall, Washington director for Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based nonprofit advocating for the transition to a clean energy future.
“The Supreme Court did severely restrict the EPA’s authority to regulate power plants,” Hall said, “but, I do think there also is reason to not read too much into the decision’s impact on what states are doing.”
The decision will have little effect on what Washington and other states are achieving in meeting their own targets for greenhouse gas emissions. The state’s electrical utilities already are on a path to achieving 100 percent clean electricity and will have far exceeded the requirements of the federal Clean Power Plan, she said.
“What this ruling highlights for me is the importance of Washington really staying strong on climate and not letting up,” Hall said. “The Legislature has passed some really important laws in the last several sessions like the 100 percent clean-energy goal, a clean fuel standard, the Climate Commitment Act and others, and many of these are just now beginning to be implemented.”
The work toward a clean-energy future among several U.S. states, she said, is aiding the broader nationwide transition, bringing along those states even as their officials drag their feet.
“You have states like Texas, for example, that don’t have laws in place to require a transition to renewable energy, but because of the way the market has developed and because you have leaders like California and Washington and Oregon, that helps to develop a technology and mature that technology such that it becomes the economic thing to do,” Hall said.
As renewable energy sources become more competitive with — and cheaper than — fossil fuels, such as wind in Texas and Indiana and solar in the Southwest, change becomes inevitable.
“It’s not a political decision now, it’s an economic decision,” Hall said. And as that is happening for power generation, Hall expects the same considerations to begin being made for the transportation sector with electric vehicles and the energy used in homes and buildings, moving away from natural gas for heating and toward more efficient technologies such as heat pumps for heating and cooling.
There remains ample opportunity for EPA’s regulators to adopt rules and regulations that achieve the administration’s goals. Thanks to a Supreme Court majority that saw the need to step between the legislative and executive branches, that will now have to come with more explicit direction from Congress, as it is able. But Congress can provide that direction as voters create a Congress that is more in line with their priorities, regardless of court opinions.
Voters, take that as a hint, please.
At the same time, the responsibility has increased for states, in particular Washington, to increase their efforts to address climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop and mature technologies, so that more states are convinced to see fossil fuels for the costly and damaging dinosaurs they are.