Around the time that polls started closing in New Hampshire and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders became the big political stories of the week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that raised the stakes of the presidential election and injected some uncertainty into one of the most significant developments in the global fight against climate change.
On Tuesday night, the court ruled 5-4 to halt the implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan until the lower courts can hear challenges to the program’s legality. The Clean Power Plan was announced last August as a centerpiece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan – it works by setting state-specific goals for reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants and granting states flexibility in devising their own plans for meeting those targets. Fossil-fuel power plants are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the country, which means the Clean Power Plan is a critical tool for curbing carbon emissions. It also lends credibility to the U.S. as a participant in the Paris Climate Accord and as a global leader in the fight against climate change.
The Supreme Court’s decision throws all of that into question. The Clean Power Plan is now frozen in place as it maneuvers its way through the legal system to its inevitable date with the high court. “The court’s announcement doesn’t necessarily shut down the Clean Power Plan,” Wired notes. “But it could send a signal to recalcitrant states, manufacturers, and energy companies that they can keep dragging their feet on climate change.” The more immediate political impact is to make clear that the United States’ success in the fight against climate change, which is critical to the global campaign to reduce carbon emissions, will be determined both by the next president and the Supreme Court.
If the Clean Power Plan is in some way defeated and the U.S. can’t meet its obligations to reduce emissions under the Paris accord, then other countries will question why they should have to follow through on their commitments when one of the world’s largest polluters isn’t. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess how the high court will rule on the Clean Power Plan. As the New Republic’s Rebecca Leber notes, the Supreme Court hasn’t been “especially hostile toward the EPA” over the course of its history, but it’s concerning nonetheless that a majority of justices agreed to preemptively halt the Clean Power Plan. Guesswork about a potential ruling aside, it’s certain that the Clean Power Plan’s fate will be determined after the Obama administration has ended.
By Simon Maloy