Supreme Court’s EPA ruling raises climate change concerns

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to limit the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency has many worried about whether the Biden administration can reach its climate goals. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, one of six scientists who filed an amicus brief in the case, and Mustafa Santiago Ali, of the National Wildlife Federation, join Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court's recent decision to limit the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency has many worried about whether the Biden administration can reach its climate goals.

    The president had pledged that, by 2030, the country would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels. That now seems even more unlikely.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The court ruled 6-3 that the Clean Air Act does not give the EPA blanket regulations against power plants. Many environmentalists see the ruling as a serious setback in the fight to address the climate crisis and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    I'm joined now by Michael Oppenheimer. He's a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. He's one of the six scientists who filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case, and Mustafa Santiago Ali, who formerly worked in the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice and is now with the National Wildlife Federation.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

    Michael Oppenheimer, the ruling clearly leaves the administration with far fewer tools to fight the climate crisis, but the EPA administrator and other administration officials insist they can still meet their goals, it'll just take a little longer. Do you by that?

    Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University: That's a very optimistic view.

    And even under an optimistic view, this decision is going to seriously slow U.S. progress in reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases and avoiding a dangerous climate change. What I mean by dangerous is more and much more of the kinds of weather we have already started to see, record heat, record droughts, sea level rise flooding coastal areas, and really intense rainstorms, in some cases drowning people in their own bedrooms.

    So what is the government going to do about that? Well, Congress, number one, could act? And, number two, the administration could develop regulations, in the absence of congressional action. Because Congress has been so deadlocked by polarization, the administration, and, in fact, administrations going back to the Obama administration started developing regulations.

    That whole process was slowed by and disrupted by the Trump administration. The Biden administration had a very good plan that looked like it might get us on the track to avoiding dangerous climate change. I'm afraid that this decision will disrupt that possibility for the U.S. and for the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mustafa Ali, let me ask you about the danger that Michael Oppenheimer just mentioned there, the consequences of this ruling.

    When you're talking about the stakes, when you're talking about the communities who are worst impacted, most directly impacted by things like — rulings like this, who are we talking about?

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali, National Wildlife Federation:

    We're talking about African American communities. We're talking about Latinx communities, Asian and Pacific Islanders, indigenous brothers and sisters, and also lower-wealth white communities, who, because of previous policy, have often been placed in sacrifice zones.

    And when we look at where these coal-fired power plants are located, they're usually located close to our most vulnerable communities, thereby impacting their health, extracting wealth from those communities. And, at the same time, we know that our communities are hit first and worst, so we have to deal with all of the climate crises that were just mentioned.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mustafa, you actually — you grew up in West Virginia, not too far from a coal power plant. What did you see growing up that informed your view today?

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali:

    Well, right across the river, we had an old coal-fired power plant. And when the winds would shift, the emissions would blow into our community, which was up higher than the community across the river.

    And we had cancers. My family has had multiple cancers. My best friend's mother and grandmother died of cancer. Throughout our community, we had multiple cancers, really a cancer cluster, if you will. We never had an analysis done, because we didn't have the language or the things that were necessary at that time.

    But others across the country have found these direct correlations between the burning of fossil fuels, both things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercuries, and PM 2.5, particulate matter, all of these things having huge impacts in our country. And we should pay attention, because we have over 200,000 people who are dying prematurely right now from air pollution in our country.

    So when the Supreme Court makes this decision, it is also adding the burden on to these communities. And we know we have got 24 million people with asthma and seven million kids. And, disproportionately, it is African American and Latin children who are the ones who are going to the emergency rooms and the ones who are losing their lives.

    That's the reason we have to act now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Michael, when it comes to that action, you mentioned you don't see much hope in Congress acting, though they do retain the authority to do something.

    When it comes to the administration, this ruling doesn't say that the EPA can't regulate emissions. It just says they have to find a different set of tools to do so, right? So what could the administration be doing right now?

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    I think anything the administration tries to do, they will be right back in court, and the case will have to work its way up to the same Supreme Court, which has shown itself to be antithetical to the idea of dealing with climate change.

    So what really the possibilities are, at the state level, where a lot of states have moved forward. The trouble with that route is, some of it is also dependent on Clean Air Act authority. And the same — the same fossil fuel interests and others that don't want to see this problem solved are going to be going in suing the states.

    Beyond that, there is the possibility of industry itself taking the lead voluntary action. For instance, the auto industry may say, we're going to move ahead with electrification of motor vehicles anyway. The solar energy industry may up its investments, but that isn't going to be enough.

    You need either tough laws from Congress or tough regulations from the administration to be able to get this done quickly enough. And I'm afraid things are just going to be slowed down until there's a different view among not just the Congress, but the judiciary as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Michael, do you believe this makes it harder for the U.S. to actually push other nations, other major emitters, like India and China to act?

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    Some countries, like China, I think are going to go ahead and do what they were going to do anyway, more or less regardless of what we're doing.

    Europe, if it doesn't get — if its whole energy system isn't thrown into disarray by the war in Ukraine, may, in the end, be able to continue the road it was on towards deeply cutting emissions, for instance, of carbon dioxide, the major human-made greenhouse gas.

    But there are countries, like India, for instance, that haven't decided which way they're going to go. I think those countries may be seriously affected by the U.S. lack of inertia in the right direction on this issue. And so we will have to see, but I'm very worried about it right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mustafa Ali, I will give you the last word here in the few seconds we have left.

    I don't hear much hope there from Michael Oppenheimer. What about you? Do you think that there's hope ahead for meaningful action to address this climate crisis here?

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali:

    I do.

    My grandmother says you have power, unless you give it away. So we should be raising our voice. There's $550 billion that's sitting right now on Capitol Hill. We need Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema and the Biden administration and all the Republican brothers and sisters to come together and do the right thing and make sure that we are actually — have a just transition, that we are making the investments that are necessary around a clean economy, and that we are lowering emissions.

    So, if we can get those dollars in place, we can help the states and counties and cities who have been doing incredible work to have what they need for this long journey that we have in front of us to address the climate crisis. And then we can also make sure that we utilize our vote and make sure that we are voting in those who care about our communities and those who want to see a brighter and more sustainable future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Mustafa Santiago Ali and Michael Oppenheimer joining us tonight.

    My thanks to you both.

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    Thank you.

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