American Electric Power Ruling Signals Supreme Court Climate Shift

Justices Roberts and Scalia flip over to a confirmation that the Clean Air Act is a tool to tackle climate

06-20-2011 // Miles Grant
Supreme Court

The Supreme Court issued its ruling today in American Electric Power vs. Connecticut (pdf), deciding Congress and the EPA already have authority under the Clean Air Act to make rules regulating global warming pollution and that courts need not get involved.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court may have foreclosed (for now) the possibility of states using federal common law to seek carbon pollution limits on some of our country’s dirtiest coal power plants, but it also has revealed a significant shift in the view of the Court’s conservative justices on climate science and how the U.S. can tackle the problem," said Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.

The opinion strongly reiterates the 2007 Clean Air Act ruling stating, "Massachusetts made plain that emissions of carbon dioxide qualify as air pollution subject to regulation under the Act" (page 10). It later adds, "the critical point is that Congress delegated to EPA the decision whether and how to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants" (page 12).

"In this regard, Roberts and Scalia have flipped over to a confirmation that the Clean Air Act is a tool to tackle climate. Members of Congress should take note," said Mendelson.

This new opinion also reaffirms the scientific findings that climate change is real and having impacts.

"In today’s decision the Supreme Court reminded us that after the ruling in Massachusetts the EPA went back and made its finding that carbon pollution contributes to climate change that, among other things, increases heat related deaths, coastal inundation and erosion from melting ice caps, causes more frequent and intense hurricanes, and shifts drought and rain patterns," said Mendelson.

“While Roberts and Scalia still hold that climate injuries may not pass threshold to stay in court, the fact remains that two of the Court’s justices broke away from the emerging extremist political orthodoxy that denies established climate science," added Mendelson. "Both joined a majority opinion that confirms climate science and reiterates support for using the Clean Air Act to tackle the climate crisis. If you’re keeping score at home, today’s decision means the Supreme Court scoreboard on climate science and the Clean Air Act shifted to be significantly more favorable, from 5-4 to 7-2."

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