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Supreme Court acts to dismantle environmental protections

Among the flurry of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that flipped over the tables on American societal norms was a decision to reduce the power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate and enforce air pollution. The Supreme Court struck down the E.P.A.’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, essentially stating that such decisions are to be left to Congress, not governmental agencies.

The Court argued that the courts should strike down regulations that raise “major questions” if Congress was not explicit enough in authorizing such actions.

“In certain extraordinary cases,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, the court needed “something more than a merely plausible textual basis” to convince it that an agency has the legal ability to issue specific regulations. “The agency,” he wrote, “instead must point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the power it claims.

Last week’s decision involved the E.P.A.’s primary mission: to curb pollution of harmful substances, which the court previously ruled included carbon dioxide emissions. Under the text of the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. is empowered to devise the “best system of emission reduction.” Yet, the Court struck down the Clean Power Plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the Court’s logic, members of Congress would have to enact a law explicitly declaring that the E.P.A. is authorized to curb air pollution under the Clean Air Act and tracked what the agency’s regulations had proposed.

The reality is that Congress is incapable of making such a decision. The thin majorities in each House of Congress are too fragile to ram through such a change. Thus, the nation has to turn its hopes to states to attack the threat posed by climate change.

Also last week, the New York State Climate Action Council’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was up for final public comment. The Council was established under state law to determine how New York should meet its aggressive climate goals.

New York has recognized that the world is at an unprecedented crossroad, and failure to act could lead to catastrophic consequences for all living things. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change October 2018 report made clear the world needs to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times if catastrophic results are to be avoided.

Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC requires rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. Three years ago, New York established climate goals: mandates to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050 with the interim goal of emitting no more than 60% of 1990 GHG by 2030. New York’s Climate Act required the state to power its electric grid through at least 70% renewable energy by 2030, and achieve electricity generated by 100% renewable energy by 2040. The Act also established the Climate Action Council to develop a blueprint for state energy and climate policy to follow in order to meet its goals.

Action was – and is – needed. According to a federal database, from 2000 to 2021, New York State experienced 53 climate disasters each totaling $1 billion in damages or more: 28 severe storms, 11 tropical cyclones, 7 winter storms, 4 droughts, and 3 flooding events. The cost of these disasters is up to $100 billion over the last 21 years, and in 2021 alone, up to $20 billion. Communities in New York City, and along the shores of Long Island, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, the Hudson River and other water bodies are especially at risk from storm surges and flooding.

The world is witnessing unprecedented fires, floods, intensifying storms, famines, and heat waves resulting from the burning of oil, gas, and coal. Despite the ideological views of six individuals who happen to be on the Supreme Court, the world is facing an existential crisis and it must respond.

While we can all wring our hands and complain about the ideological push by the Court, now is a time for action. New York State has one of the biggest economies on the planet. Coupled with other large states, such as California, state actions can drive the nation’s public policy.

The science is crystal clear, and the debate is long over; climate change is real and in a crisis state, and human activities are at the heart of the problem. New York must lead.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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