Close to 100 supporters of climate action raised their voices in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 6, in spite of the morning’s sticky heat and a sky that threatened rain.
“We are unstoppable! A better world is possible!” advocates chanted. “Climate action now!”
The group, organized by Climate Action Campaign, showed up to rally against the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in West Virginia vs. Environmental Protection Agency, which limited the EPA’s regulatory authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The June 30 ruling came at the end of a busy month for the court, which delivered hugely impactful decisions eliminating Americans’ federally-protected right to abortion access and expanding the right to carry guns in public.
Amidst a busy news cycle, advocates for climate action and environmental justice have fought to focus attention on this ruling’s potential consequences for both climate change and air pollution.
“It’s very technical when we start talking about ‘coal-fired power plants’ and ‘renewable portfolio standards,’” said Cecile Brown, a communications manager for political affairs and climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“I don’t think the average person or the average resident knows what’s at stake. And I think that’s just the most alarming thing about this decision,” Brown said.
So what are the stakes? And why are climate experts and environmental advocates like Brown so concerned? Here are three things to know about this consequential ruling.
Climate Change, Air Pollution, Environmental Justice Key Concerns
Fossil fuel burning power plants, which emit harmful chemicals like sulfur dioxide and mercury alongside greenhouse gasses, continue to be disproportionately located in Black, Latino, Indigenous, and low-income communities. The Supreme Court ruling makes it more difficult for the EPA to regulate these emissions and push industries to switch from high-polluting fuels like coal to cleaner forms of energy.
“The average person takes about 20,000 breaths a day: for some people, those 20,000 breaths are in dangerous, dirty air and for others they will be in clean air,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president, Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation.
“This decision places challenges on our most vulnerable communities and our most vulnerable children,.” he said.
Recent Case Shows Court’s Move to Reduce Federal Agencies’ Power
West Virginia v. EPA centered on an Obama-era initiative called the Clean Power Plan (CPP) which would have required states to cut back on emissions from power plants and meet federally-mandated goals. However, before it could go into effect, the Supreme Court suspended the plan.
Years later, the U.S. energy sector actually exceeded the plan’s intended goals even without any comprehensive regulation in place after a number of aging coal plants simply became more expensive to operate than natural gas or renewable energy plants. Since the goals had already been achieved, the Biden administration said it wasn’t interested in trying to revive the CPP.
“Is it purely about the law? Or is it about politics? Because we know that for the last 30 years, the Republican Party has been focused on deconstructing many of our environmental protections,” Ali said. “They had to reach really far down to bring this case up.”
According to Ian Millhiser, a journalist for Vox, a news and opinion website, the court typically doesn’t take on cases like this. So, the fact that the justices chose to rule on it indicates the six conservative justices’ eagerness to shift power away from administrative agencies.
Federal, State, Municipal Governments Can Still Make a Difference
Experts like environmental journalist Amy Westervelt have pointed out that the ruling is, by itself, relatively narrow. It nixes the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions from power plants based on one specific section of the Clean Air Act, but it doesn’t completely wipe out the agency’s power to control greenhouse gasses using other parts of the law as a basis.
Ali said advocates continue to work to fight climate change despite the recent ruling.
“There’s still work that is happening,” Ali said. “The EPA has several other avenues through which it can regulate toxic chemicals and air pollution. But you know, with the totality and the immenseness of the climate crisis, you need every tool in your toolbox.”
Activists at the July 6 rally urged the Biden/Harris administration and Congress to step up with environmental justice and climate policies. States and municipalities can also implement their own climate policies.
Brown, who spoke at the rally, focused on the importance of voting for climate-friendly officials “up and down the ballot” in the upcoming midterms and general elections.
Brown, a Ward 5 resident who previously worked at DOEE, pointed out that the District has made progress toward an ambitious clean energy goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Still, she said, averting a climate crisis will require action from every US state. The court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA makes it less likely that others will follow DC’s lead.
“The goal of the rally was to let the Supreme Court and all of our elected officials know that we won’t back down,” Brown said. “We’re talking about how we all live and breathe and generations to come… We need Congress to enact legislation that’s going to put us on the path to 100% clean electricity, and clean cars and trucks and buses.”