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Supreme Court Takes Up Global Warming Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard its first case on global warming Wednesday, with 12 states asking the court to mandate limits on greenhouse emissions from new cars and trucks. Experts discuss the case and analyze its significance.

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    Now, today's Supreme Court arguments over global warming. Gwen Ifill begins.


    Today marked the first time the high court has addressed the issue of climate change. The question: Should the federal government regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles?

    In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency said no. But a group of 12 states and several environmental groups challenged that, and both sides took their disagreement to the Supreme Court today.

    NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was at the court, and she joins us now. Welcome back, Marcia.

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Thanks, Gwen.


    So why is the Supreme Court stepping into such a delicate and volatile debate?


    Well, this actually began back in 1999, when the states and the environmental groups petitioned EPA to regulate greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and three others gases that appear in emissions from new cars.

    EPA said that it did not have the authority under the Federal Clean Air Act to regulate those gases, and even if it did, EPA said, in its judgment, it was exercising its discretion not to regulate for a variety of reasons, including scientific uncertainty about global warming, policy concerns about the impact on this country's ability to negotiate climate change issues with other countries.

    Well, when it made its decisions, the states and its supporters appealed that decision to a federal appellate court here in Washington, D.C., and they lost in a 2-1 panel decision. The states now brought their appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.


    Now, you've just mentioned scientific uncertainties as one of the many debates surrounding this issue but also what brought this to the court. Did that play out in the courtroom today?


    Well, actually, it didn't figure largely in it. As the Massachusetts attorney said, they're not asking the Supreme Court to make a decision or a judgment about the science of climate change. There are really three basic issues before the Supreme Court, and that's what the argument focused on today.

    The first has very little to do, really, with global warming. It's a question of whether Massachusetts and its supporters actually have a right to be in federal court. It's what we call, "Do they have standing to sue?"

    The second issue is the central issue in the case, and that's whether the Federal Clean Air Act does authorize EPA to regulate these gases in new car emissions.

    And finally, the third question is, if EPA has the authority, did it properly decline to regulate? The factors it considered, like scientific uncertainty and those other policy concerns, were they legal factors in its decision?


    Well, for instance, as the justices were being presented with these arguments today, were they raising questions about how big a problem vehicle emissions are, for instance?


    Well, it came up in the standing argument, and that part of the case really dominated the entire hour of argument.

    The Massachusetts assistant attorney general, James Milkey, he was first up at the podium. And he told the justices that, under the court's standing doctrine, Massachusetts has to show that it's been injured, harmed, that there is a causal connection between its harm and what somebody here, EPA, failed to do — which Massachusetts says enforce the Federal Clean Air Act — and that the relief it seeks will redress or remedy the injury that Massachusetts and the states have suffered.

    And he said there are a wide variety of injuries caused by global warming. Massachusetts, in particular, he said, is at risk of losing 200 miles of coastline.