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The effect the Supreme Court's climate decision may have

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Supreme Court concluded its term today with two major decisions - one on immigration and one on the environment. We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about that second one, West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency. And we're joined by NPR's Laura Benshoff. Hi, Laura.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has issued some precedent-busting decisions recently on guns and abortion. Does this fall into the same heading?

BENSHOFF: It's similar. The court didn't explicitly knock down a precedent, but environmental law experts I talked to said they certainly eroded one. The majority opinion, which all six conservative justices joined, struck down the legal case for an old climate policy. That's the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to put state-level caps on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which would effectively steer states away from using coal-fired power plants towards other forms of power generation that emit less carbon dioxide. And so what the Supreme Court opinion said today is that was an overreach. And the EPA doesn't have the authority to decide how power is made in this country. That belongs to Congress. And putting it that way takes a big bite out of a kind of historic deference the courts have given to federal agencies to interpret the laws that give them power. Carol Browner is a former EPA administrator and Obama administration climate official.

CAROL BROWNER: There's a reason Congress gives authority to regulatory agencies to address pressing problems. It is complicated. Climate change is complicated. The science is hard. Technologies are complicated. And, you know, Congress doesn't want to do it.

BENSHOFF: Of course, the conservative justices in states they sided with say this just restores things to the way they should be, that this was always in Congress' hands.

SHAPIRO: The U.N., the scientific community, experts have all agreed that time is running out to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. The Biden administration has made big promises. Is this Supreme Court ruling going to prevent him from keeping them?

BENSHOFF: You know, without congressional action to actually fund the kind of transformative promises Biden made, he was always going to have a harder time trying to drastically cut emissions, just using the power of regulation alone. What this ruling does is just make what he can do by regulation smaller, you know. And this is a key area of carbon emissions. Making electricity creates about a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions the U.S. emits every year. And the country needs to move away from burning fossil fuels for the U.S. to have a chance of keeping warming in check. But, you know, one upside of this ruling, says Jody Freeman, the founding director of Harvard Law School's environmental law and policy program, is that it doesn't rule out all other tools.

JODY FREEMAN: They did go out of their way, in the opinion, to say we're simply - we're ruling out the Clean Power Plan, but we're not tying EPA's hands in any other specific way. So I thought that was the silver lining in the opinion.

BENSHOFF: In a statement from the White House, President Biden called this a devastating decision, but he vowed to keep using the power of his office to bring down emissions.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell what the impact might be for future cases, other environmental policies?

BENSHOFF: You know, just taking up this case sent a signal from the highest court that they'd be looking at agency power very closely. We see similar arguments made in environmental cases around tailpipe emissions, around disclosing the financial risks of climate change. So this is likely not the last we'll see or hear of this type of argument or even this type of ruling.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Laura Benshoff, thanks a lot.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.