The Supreme Court has made it harder for the country to fight the ravages of climate change.
In a 6-to-3 decision yesterday, the court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to prevent power plants from releasing climate-warming pollution. The court ruled that Congress had not given the agency the authority to issue the broad regulations that many climate experts believe could make a major difference — the kind of regulations that many Biden administration officials would have liked to implement.
Today’s newsletter will walk you through what the decision means — and also clarify what it does not mean (because some of the early commentary exaggerated the decision’s meaning). The bottom line is that the ruling is significant, but it does not eliminate the Biden administration’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
Amy Westervelt, a climate journalist, summarized the decision by writing: “Not good, but also not as bad as it could have been. It’s pretty narrow.” Romany Webb of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University called the ruling “a blow, but it is nowhere near the worst-case scenario.”
The trouble, many scientists say, is that climate change presents such an enormous threat to the world — and the need to reduce the pace of warming is so urgent — that any ruling that makes the task harder is worrisome. Extreme storms, heat waves, droughts and wildfires are already becoming more common. Some species are facing potential extinction. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising.
Yet the U.S. has made only modest progress combating climate change through federal policy in recent years. The Trump administration largely denied the problem and reversed Obama administration policies intended to slow global warming. The Biden administration has failed to pass its ambitious climate agenda because of uniform Republican opposition and Democratic infighting. Now the Supreme Court has made the job more difficult, too.
What’s still possible
The Biden administration had hoped to issue a major rule requiring electric utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, essentially forcing them to replace coal and gas-fired plants with clean forms of electricity, like wind, solar and nuclear. The justices ruled that when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, it did not intend to give the E.P.A. such broad authority.
The E.P.A. can still regulate power plants after the ruling, but more narrowly than before: The agency can push power plants to become more efficient, for example. “The way to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions from power plants is to shut down the power plants — and replace them with something cleaner,” my colleague Coral Davenport said. “And that’s off the table.”
After yesterday, the E.P.A.’s most significant policy tools appear to involve other industries. The agency can still regulate greenhouse gases from vehicles, the nation’s largest source of such emissions — although the ruling and the potential for future lawsuits may make the agency more cautious than it otherwise would be.
On Twitter, Michael Gerrard, an environmental law expert at Columbia University, listed other ways that government agencies could continue to address climate change, including: federal rules applying to newly built power plants; federal rules on leakage from oil and gas production; state and local rules in many areas; and private sector efforts to become more energy efficient, often subsidized by the government.
“One battle is lost (unsurprisingly, given this Supreme Court),” Gerrard wrote, “but the war against climate change very much goes on.”

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