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Supreme Court to EPA: environmental protection extends to global warming

supremecourt2.jpgWe’d be derelict if we didn’t mention this week’s landmark Supreme Court decision on greenhouse gases. Here’s a handy rundown for those just tuning in.

The issue: The state of Massachusetts sued the EPA, claiming that the agency was compelled by the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a pollutant.

The verdict: The court rules 5-4 in favor of Massachusetts. The case centered on three major findings:

  1. Standing. At issue was whether Massachusetts even had the right to bring suit against the EPA. You can not, as a matter of course, bring suit against the federal government for any reason. You have to show that you have suffered some specific harm. You have to further show that the harm is actually redressable by the defendant. In other words, Massachusetts had to demonstrate both that the state is affected by global warming, and that the EPA has some plausible ability to address global warming. The court ruled in favor of Massachusetts on both counts.
  2. Authority. EPA to court: we have no authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. Court to EPA: yes, you do.
  3. Discretion. EPA to court: even if we have such authority, our considered opinion is that there’s no need for us to take action on this issue right now. Court to EPA: think harder.

The implications: The standing issue, although a bit more obscure than the others, was being watched particularly closely. Standing has been used in the past as grounds to deny environmental groups the right to sue the government. This verdict sets a helpful precedent for activist organizations.

The authority ruling has immediate ramifications for the state of California, which is being sued by automakers over its attempts to regulate CO2 emissions. Automakers claim that California has no right to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, but their case just got a lot weaker.

Update: Apparently it got really weak. The automakers’ law suit may get thrown out today. Grist has the full details. This is pretty huge. CAFE standards have been stagnant for decades, and with this ruling, the genie is pretty much out of the bottle. States will be able to effectively set mileage standards at whatever level they want, and several states have expressed interest in doing so. Like so many times in the past, as California goes, so goes the world. Later update: Maybe not so fast. Commenters to the Grist post are cautioning that the California lawsuit could take some time to work through the system.

The discretion ruling, although seemingly the most significant, is really just another domino falling. The Supreme Court literally told the EPA to go back and think harder about whether they needed to take action on climate change. Needless to say, the agency will be under enormous scrutiny and pressure to acknowledge the scientific reality of global warming, further isolating administration skeptics. But the review process will take several years, and the real action is in Congress. The pressure on Congress to act has just ratcheted up another level, but this tipping point was probably reached many months ago.

Altogether, a very important week in the fight against climate change.

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