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Will a surprising Supreme Court move shake the Paris climate accord?

The Supreme Court temporarily blocked major regulations, designed by the EPA, to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. The move, which has been called unprecedented, means that the Obama administration's rules can't go into effect until legal challenges are settled. William Brangham learns more from Coral Davenport of The New York Times.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In a surprise move late yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to put the centerpiece of President Obama's climate change agenda on hold, pending the outcome of judicial appeals in the lower courts.

    William Brangham has that.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In a move that's been called unprecedented, the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked major environmental regulations that were designed to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

    The high court's order means these regulations, which were put out by the Environmental Protection Agency, can't go into effect until legal challenges against them are settled. The coal industry and a consortium of states have sued to stop the rules, calling them — quote — "a power grab."

    To help us understand all this, we turn to Coral Davenport, who has been reporting the story for The New York Times.

    So, Coral, before we get to what the court ordered, let's talk a little bit about these regulations. These are not some arcane set of rules. These seem pretty fundamental to the president's environmental agenda.

  • CORAL DAVENPORT, The New York Times:

    Yes, the regulation that was put on hold is really at the heart of President Obama's climate change agenda.

    In his second term, President Obama really wanted to build a legacy around addressing climate change. He just got back less than two months ago from a meeting in Paris where the first ever universal global accord on climate change was signed.

    One of the reasons or one of the cornerstones for the success of that accord was the fact that the U.S. had acted on this specific policy. So this is — as you say, this is not some small, arcane policy. This was set to be sort of the cornerstone of what President Obama hoped would be the first major climate action by the United States.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The coal industry and 20-something states have been suing to try to block these rules. What has been their argument against them?

  • CORAL DAVENPORT:

    Their reason to block the rules is, if the rules were to go into effect, they would target, as you say, emissions from coal-fired power plants, and in the long run probably shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

    They would freeze construction of future coal-fired power plants and almost certainly freeze the domestic market for U.S. coal. So the coal industry and states where coal mining or coal-fired power plants are a big part of the company have been fighting tooth and nail against this rule from the very beginning.

    Their legal argument is that rule is so broad, so creative that it's a sort of overinterpretation of the existing law of the Clean Air Act, that it violates the Constitution. These are their legal arguments against the rule.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, the Supreme Court steps in and says no implementing of these rules until the legal challenges against the rules are settled. Is that what's unusual about this, the timing of when the court stepped in?

  • CORAL DAVENPORT:

    Yes, it's very rare for the court to issue a stay like this, and almost unprecedented for the court to halt a regulation before the regulation has — before there's even been any kind of court or legal action.

    So the regulation is on track to — there will be oral arguments in a district federal court in June, but, essentially, you know, the Supreme Court is halting implementation of the rule before it's even had its first day in court. That is what is so surprising about this.

    And I can tell you that even the plaintiffs in this case, even the coal states and coal-fired power plants who sued for this actually called this result amazing. Even they were surprised that the Supreme Court did this.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    You touched on this a little bit earlier. In fact, you reported today that the Supreme Court's move could prove to be a major blow to the Paris agreements that this administration and hundreds of other countries agreed to. Explain how that would work. How does a domestic ruling affect an international global treaty?

  • CORAL DAVENPORT:

    Well, the accord — it's not quite a treaty — the accord, what's important about it is, it's the first ever universal climate change deal. Every country on Earth has signed on to this deal with a commitment to take action at home on climate change.

    And, historically, the reason no such deal has been possible before is because of lack of action by the United States. So, once President Obama put this regulation in place, he met with his counterparts, he met with the other world leaders in China, in India, around the world, and said, look, we have got this policy in place, this regulation is being implemented, the U.S., the largest historic carbon emitter in the world is acting.

    And because of the nature of climate change, you know, it's a global problem. You can't have a solution unless really all the players are on board. And so President Obama used this regulation as leverage in, you know, getting a deal and getting other countries on board.

    If this rule is not enacted, if it is ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court, it takes away that leverage. It takes away this major action by the world's largest economy. And so already in New Delhi and Beijing, there are questions about, well, if the U.S. might not be able to meet its commitment, you know, there are questions about, well, why should other countries do the same?

    No one is threatening not to move forward with the accord yet, but what analysts in those other countries are saying is, they're going to look ahead to the final Supreme Court decision. If the Supreme Court moves all the way ahead and strikes down this rule, it really could imperil this Paris agreement that was celebrated with such fanfare less than two months ago.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, Coral Davenport of The New York Times, thanks so much.

  • CORAL DAVENPORT:

    It's great to be with you. Thank you.

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