In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
The decision for the case, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, argues that the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions falls under what the Court refers to as the “major questions doctrine” – or the idea that on issues of major economic or political significance, Congress must be clear on its intention to delegate authority to an agency. Writing for the majority, Justice Roberts argues, “it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme” to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
Michael Oppenheimer, director of C-PREE and Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), the Department of Geosciences, and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, prepared a scientists’ amicus brief related to the case in January 2022.
Sharing his view on the ruling, Oppenheimer describes the decision as “a disaster for climate protection efforts.” By preventing the EPA from regulating on carbon dioxide emissions, Oppenheimer says, “the Court condemns US climate policy to wait for Congress to act which means waiting for either the return of bipartisanship or the end of the filibuster, neither of which is likely to happen anytime soon.”
To date Congress has been unable to pass significant climate legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions to work toward the country's stated goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 2005 levels in 2030. This decision by the Supreme Court takes away one pathway the Biden Administration might have relied on to enforce rules related to limiting emissions.
Importantly, the decision doesn’t challenge the seriousness of climate change or the science and Court’s own precedent related to climate change (Mass v. EPA), but it does prevent the EPA from being able to “implement anything that’s more than incremental,” says Oppenheimer.
Considering the Supreme Court decision from a more global perspective, Oppenheimer notes, “Unfortunately, the lack of comprehensive US climate policy is likely to be a significant drag on efforts by the rest of the world to rein in climate change."
"In other words, we can kiss those Paris targets goodbye, condemned to figuring out how to deal with a hotter and hotter planet.”
Additional Coverage Quoting Oppenheimer
Republican Drive to Tilt Courts Against Climate Action Reaches a Crucial Moment (NYTimes, June 19)
Supreme Court Will Hear Biggest Climate Change Case in a Decade (NYTimes, Feb 28)