Supreme Court Blunts Biden Administration’s Efforts to Combat Climate Change

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The Supreme Court on Thursday dealt a dramatic blow to the government’s ability to combat climate change, ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. “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,'” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme…A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.” The majority opinion is one of several far-reaching decisions from the conservative court this session, including on gun laws and abortion. 

At issue in West Virginia v. EPA was whether a provision of the Clean Air Act gives the government agency the power to make “decisions of vast economic and political significance” in regulating carbon pollution. In a 6-3 decision, the court’s conservative majority sided with the plaintiffs, who argued that such regulations were the purview of Congress not the EPA, based on the “major questions doctrine” — the same reasoning the court applied in knocking down the Biden administration’s federal vaccination and COVID testing rules for employees of large companies. In so doing, the court significantly narrowed the EPA’s regulatory authority, and further hamstrung the Biden administration’s efforts to reign in global warming.

Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined by Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer in her dissent, called the decision “frightening.” “Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,” Kagan wrote. “And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

The decision comes at a dire moment for the environment: In a United Nations climate report February 22, the day justices heard oral arguments in West Virginia v. EPA, scientists warned of the “grave and mounting threat” posed by climate change — and the closing window of opportunity to blunt the devastation. “Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks,” Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said of that report. “Half measures are no longer an option.”

The Supreme Court ruling Thursday could significantly limit the United States’ ability to address the crisis. It could also have broad impacts on other agencies’ regulatory power, with implications for everything from climate policy to prescription drug prices, as Politico pointed out earlier this month.

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