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.

Author Bio


Comments Disabled

  1. speedmaster - April 4, 2007

    Unfortunate. This entire episode begs the question … Why haven’t they ruled the existence of the EPA to be unconstitutional?!?

  2. Bob - April 4, 2007

    So CO2 is a pollutant to be regulated by the Federal government. I exhale CO2, does that mean the I and my lifestyle can now be regulated?

  3. susanna - April 4, 2007

    I believe the EPA should have a stronger stand against CO2 as it relates to car emissions and pollution from other machinery. The technology is out there and all ready set to go for a cleaner world, why are big companies so opposed to making the change? It’s very, very sad. I feel that if the EPA were to crack down, change would be fast approaching.
    Did you know that 30% of our global warming can be contributed to how we grow our crops? If we would just use cleaner organic ways of farming we could make a huge cut in the amount of pollutants. GO ORGANIC! :) – wind power generated manufacturing plant, carbon neutral company!

  4. Gary West - April 4, 2007

    Thank you Massachusetts! Come on Texas!

  5. david - April 4, 2007

    “does that mean the I and my lifestyle can now be regulated?”
    In case you haven’t checked the laws of the country recently, you and your actions have been regulated since you were born. But this ruling is about the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment which is being pushed beyond its carrying capacity for our species to adequately supply for our needs.
    Mass extinction is going on now due in large part to human ignorance and apathy, and regulating CO2 is only a first step at turning this boat of irresponsibility around:

  6. Adam Stein - April 4, 2007

    speedmaster — because it’s not.
    Bob — actually, yes. One of the of the likely consequences of this case is that breathing will be metered and taxed like many other polluting activities. People who exercise regularly will be particularly hard hit, but most Americans will probably not be affected by the ruling. Nevertheless, TerraPass strongly recommends that people stop engaging in aerobic activities such as bike-riding.
    Oh, wait. Looks like the ruling only applies to cars and trucks, which are already heavily regulated. Please disregard.

  7. Erica - April 4, 2007

    GOOD JOB MASS! Come on California! Get on this Arnold!!!!

  8. Steve B - April 4, 2007

    As a now prouder resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, all as I can as is lets get some Real CAFE standards. GO Red Sox!!!!

  9. Bryan - April 4, 2007

    Your excretions are already regulated, more or less, so the precedent has been established. Or do you want to make the argument that you should be free to excrete whenever wherever?

  10. Speedmaster - April 4, 2007

    >> speedmaster — because it’s not.
    Adam. With all due respect, I see nothing in the Constitution that comes even close to permitting the existence of the EPA. See Article 1, Section 8.

  11. Chad - April 4, 2007


    The laws of the United States are not based solely on the Constitution, but also on the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, which is ultimate arbiter of what the Constitution means.

    In this case, there is a wealth of Commerce Clause jurisprudence that recognizes the Federal Government’s power to regulate things that affect interstate commerce. Pollution does effect commerce.

  12. A different Chad - April 4, 2007

    In response to the previous Chad, it is often asked that if your interpretation of the Commerce Clause is correct, what the heck ISN’T “intertate commerce”? The only defensible answer is “just about nothing”.
    Personally, I feel that the environment is exactly the type of issue the constitution should be modified for. It is an issue that was beyond the scope of the thinking of our nations founders, but is clearly inter-state and international, and therefore best handled at least in part at the federal level. Instead of pretending the Commerce Clause (which was included to keep sure Virginia didn’t set a cotton tariff or the like) is the sole justification for the EPA and 80% of the government, why don’t we just amend the constitution to included regulation of the environment as a enumerated federal power?
    While I may like the result of this lawsuit, I actually agree with the dissent on the legal merits for most of the contentious points. This ruling was a real stretch that required incredibly pained readings of various passages of the Clean Air Act to justify. I much prefer actually winning the political debate (and we are!) and CHANGING THE LAW through legislative processes rather than trying to convince five of nine somewhere to pretend some old law says what we wish the new law would say, even when it pretty clearly does not and was written about something else entirely.

  13. Kevin Wright - April 4, 2007

    Mr. Bowen,
    Obviously you don’t understand the workings of the courts system. Judges (and jurys for that metter) need not be experts on speciffic issues, they need only decide on the matter before them using the testimony presented. In fact, that someone may be an expert on an issue might actually disqualify them as a juror or judge.
    This ruling is not about how much CO2 you breathe out and how the man can regulate it, it is about gross polution on a massive scale with no regard to the environment. CO2 is a natural substance but not in the quantities it is being forced into the atmosphere.

  14. Aaron A. - April 4, 2007

    In response to the previous Chad, it is often asked that if your interpretation of the Commerce Clause is correct, what the heck ISN’T “intertate[sic] commerce”? The only defensible answer is “just about nothing”.

    It’s not just his interpretation. Just look at the case law; anything you do, even growing your own “medicinal herbs,” is said to affect interstate commerce.

    As far as I’m concerned, the real culprits are The New Deal and the Interstate Highway system, which paved the way for national commerce as we know it today. Sure, it has its perks, but these programs also made megafarming and chain stores viable.

    Back to the point, it’s encouraging from an environmental standpoint that the EPA can regulate CO2 emissions, but does this mean we’ll see emissions standards rise and fall with every election? Or will the benefits outweigh the hassle enough that relaxing standards would be politically stupid (for comparison, consider what would happen if they tried to repeal the law requiring seat belts in passenger vehicles)?

  15. Marc - April 4, 2007

    The question is not whether “the government” has the right to regulate emissions, but whether “the people” (you and I who must breathe and survive) have that right. And we certainly do – that’s why the EPA has existed for 40 years despite myriad challenges in the Supreme Court. Tirades against socialism are often a thin veil over attacks on humanity.

  16. Edward C. Mangold - April 4, 2007

    In addition to regulating the amount of aerobic exercise you engage in, the government will also restrict any excess weight you carry. The more weight, the greater the non-necessary energy you must expend, and the additional volume of air spent breathing.

  17. Steve M in Alaska - April 4, 2007

    Response to “2. Comment by Bob @ Apr 4, 2007 4 AM”. Bob, if, as I suspect, you are eating a fairly normal human diet the CO2 that you release is exactly balanced by CO2 that was taken up fairly recently by plants at the base of the food chain; your exhalation represents no net increase in CO2 emission. If, on the other hand, you are eating fossil fuels, then you are a source of “new” CO2 to the atmosphere and you deserve to be regulated.

  18. Bob - April 4, 2007

    In reply to Steve #18
    It would be hard for my food, or the food of most of the people reading this, to be carbon neutral.
    Think of the energy involved in raising it, packaging it, transporting it, storing it, etc.
    I am lucky enough to live in an area where it is possible to grow food, purchase from growers within walking distance, walk to a river to fish. But, many live in restricted, confined, limited conditions where they lack these freedoms.
    Many do not think about the personal consequences of this decision.
    Based on my limited knowledge of Alaska, you might also be free, but most of the population seems to be confined to the cities.

  19. Justin - April 4, 2007

    Adam, thanks for posting this. I heard a snippet of the story on NPR but didn’t catch the whole thing.

  20. pradwastes - April 5, 2007

    Last time the CAFE standard were raised bu the EPA, Toyota hired 100 engineers. General Moters hired 100 lawers.