The US Supreme Court has limited how the country’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, striking a blow to the fight against climate change.
Conservative judges won a vote by 6-3 on Thursday, leading the court to rule that the Clean Air Act doesn’t empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate power plant greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Critics including environmental advocates and liberal judges have blasted the decision as a major step in the wrong direction amid dire warnings about the future as a result of climate change.
University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, said the decision “feels like a gut punch to critical efforts to combat the climate crisis which has the potential to place lives at risk for decades to come.”
The ruling could complicate the US administration’s plans to combat climate change, with its detailed proposal to regulate power plant emissions expected by the end of the year.
President Joe Biden is aiming to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output.
Although Thursday’s decision is specific to the EPA, it falls in line with the conservative majority’s scepticism of the power of regulatory agencies and sends a message on possible future effects beyond climate change and air pollution.
The decision also follows a series of heavily controversial rulings by the Supreme Court. Its conservative majority, bolstered by three appointees of former President Donald Trump, recently overturned the US’ nearly 50-year-old nationwide right to abortion, expanded gun rights and issued major religious rights rulings.
In his opinion for the court issued on Thursday, Chief Justice John Roberts said: “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’”.
But he added that the Clean Air Act doesn’t give EPA the authority to do so and that Congress must speak clearly on this subject.
“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” he wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the decision strips the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to “the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”
She said the stakes in the case are high, adding that the court “appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
Biden called the ruling “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.” He said he would “not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis.”
And EPA head Michael Regan said his agency will move forward with a rule to impose environmental standards on the energy sector.
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric also weighed in to call the decision “a setback in our fight against climate change, when we are already far off-track in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement,” – the international climate accord that the US left during the Trump administration and re-entered once Biden took office.