The Supreme Court of the United States decided against the EPA in West Virginia v. The Environmental Protection Agency on June 30, 2022.

At issue was the EPA’s ability to regulate and set stricter standards on fossil fuel-emitting industrial plants without congressional approval.

The Biden Administration, in its efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, sought an incremental move toward natural gas and renewable energy at the expense of coal and other high emission-producing materials. They wanted to reduce coal output from 37% of total energy production to 28% by the year 2030.

The court did not say the EPA could not set these standards. They only said that such a dramatic change in standards needed congressional approval.

A recent podcast from Brookings provides additional historical context for the ruling and discusses its potential implication.

As in other high-profile cases in this term, the vote was 6-3, with the conservatives voting with West Virginia and the progressives voting with the EPA.

Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that any regulation that is “transformational” to the economy, and involves “a generation shifting approach,” must receive congressional approval.

While the EPA asserted that it was granted such approval via the Clean Air Act, the majority disagreed.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing in dissent, claimed that the court was appointing itself as the “decision-maker on climate change,” a move she described as “frightening.”

“Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,’” she asserted.

As a person who believes carbon emission is creating an existential threat to our future well-being, it would be expected that I would oppose this decision. And yet, I’m quite conflicted about it.

The court was saying, essentially, that such transformational policies by the EPA require congressional approval.

Granted, it could be argued that reducing coal production from 37% to 28% by the year 2030 is not very transformational. Nevertheless, the court decided the EPA did not have the power to alter the markets to the degree they were poised to do.

I generally do support the limiting of government power on the markets, especially power from one particular agency directed by the executive branch.

We don’t want our presidents to have too much authority, so I resonate with that ingrained fear that many Americans have against a too-powerful executive.

At the same time, I do believe all of humanity is facing a threat to our existence not seen before, with the possible exception of nuclear war that emerged at the outset of the Cold War.

We are going to need all hands on deck not only in the U.S. but also around the world to confront the catastrophic effects of climate change. Therefore, perhaps we need a declaration of war against climate change, which can only be authorized by Congress, according to the Constitution.

The Supreme Court is not going to rescue us from this collective responsibility. If we are going to tackle climate change and move away from burning fossil fuels at macro levels, we are going to have to elect people to Congress who believe this and are brave enough to act on this belief.

It will be up to the American people to confront this challenge. Are we smart enough and visionary enough to do it?

It’s not the makeup of the court that is in the balance. It is human civilization as we know it.

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