The U.S. Supreme Court Blocks Efforts to Slow Climate Change as Promised by President Obama
The Supreme Court’s extraordinary decision on Tuesday to temporarily block the Obama administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from power plants was deeply disturbing on two fronts. It raised serious questions about America’s ability to deliver on Mr. Obama’s pledge in Paris in December to sharply reduce carbon emissions, and, inevitably, about its willingness to take a leadership role on the issue.
The Court Blocks Efforts to Slow Climate Change
By THE New York Times EDITORIAL BOARD, FEB. 11, 2016
The Supreme Court’s extraordinary decision on Tuesday to temporarily block the Obama administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from power plants was deeply disturbing on two fronts.
It raised serious questions about America’s ability to deliver on Mr. Obama’s pledge in Paris in December to sharply reduce carbon emissions, and, inevitably, about its willingness to take a leadership role on the issue.
And with all the Republican-appointed justices lining up in a 5-to-4 vote to halt the regulation before a federal appeals court could rule on it, the court also reinforced the belief among many Americans that the court is knee-deep in the partisan politics it claims to stand above. While the court’s action was not a ruling on the merits of the case, it will delay efforts to comply with the regulation and sends an ominous signal that Mr. Obama’s initiative, known as the Clean Power Plan, could ultimately be overturned.
The Clean Power Plan, announced by the Environmental Protection Agency last August, requires states to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from their electricity producers, which chiefly use older coal-fired power plants, over the next few years. These plants produce more carbon emissions than any other source, and cutting them is the backbone of Mr. Obama’s larger goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions over all by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The rule is based on the Clean Air Act — which, as the court has already made clear in multiple cases, gives the federal government broad authority to regulate a range of pollutants, including carbon emissions from power plants. Mr. Obama is using that authority here. And while the plan sets out aggressive state-by-state goals, it is carefully designed to give states the time and flexibility to meet them. It’s inevitable that some, perhaps many, older coal-fired plants will close; but states can also convert to cleaner-burning natural gas, build renewable-energy sources, like wind and solar, or enter into regional “cap and trade” programs that allow them to buy and sell permits to pollute.
Efforts like these are broadly popular: A clear majority of Americans, including many Republicans, agree that global warming is or will soon be a serious threat. Nearly two-thirds said they would support domestic policies limiting carbon emissions from power plants.
But flexibility, a generous time frame for compliance and public opinion were not enough to sway 27 states that sued to stop what they call a “power grab” by the federal government and Mr. Obama’s “war on coal.” Many of these states depend heavily on coal-fired plants for their power and many are run by Republican governors, who either willfully disbelieve well-established climate science or find it politically impossible to take steps necessary to reduce emissions. They also refuse to recognize that, rule or no rule, the nation’s energy landscape is already changing, with coal-fired power plants gradually but inexorably succumbing to cheaper natural gas and the emergence of renewable energy sources.
The justices could easily have waited. Last month, a unanimous panel of the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., sided with the administration and refused to block the Clean Power Plan from taking effect. It set an expedited briefing schedule in order to resolve the case well before any significant action is required from the states. Normally, the Supreme Court allows this process to play out. But time and again, this court has shown itself to be all too eager to upset longstanding practice or legal precedent.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. often complains that the court is unfairly viewed as just another political branch. He said so again in an interview just last week, arguing that the nomination process creates the impression that justices are little more than party loyalists. “When you have a sharply political, divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms,” he said. But, he insisted, “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans.”
If the court wants to be perceived as acting in a judicial capacity, and not as an arm of the conservatives, it has a funny way of showing it.