Supreme Court blow to climate change shows why election so important


Democracy was in the air last night. All of the TV news coverage was focused on the state of New Hampshire, where voters in both parties were taking part in an America tradition, the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. CNN was showing long lines outside polling places in the Granite State, and even traffic jams in some locations — a sure sign that U.S. citizens have an extremely keen interest on who will replace President Obama when he leaves the White House in January. After all, the 45th American president will have enormous say over war-and-peace in the Middle East, over preventing yet another economic recession…and in making sure that the United States takes seriously the threat from climate change.

Ironically, Americans got an unexpected reminder of the high stakes in this election right as the polls were closing in New Hampshire. A sharply divided Supreme Court — voting 5-4, with the most conservative justices providing the majority — issued a stay that prevents arguably the most important environmental initiative of the Obama administration. The justices blocked strict pollution limits on power plants that burn fossil fuels, especially coal, from taking effect. The ruling is only temporary, but history suggests that it wouldn’t have been issued unless the High Court is considering overturning the anti-pollution rule for good:

WASHINGTON — In a major setback for President Obama’s climate change agenda, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups.

But the high court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices.

The 5-to-4 vote, with the court’s four liberal members dissenting, was unprecedented — the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court.

“It’s a stunning development,” Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former environmental legal counsel to the Obama administration, said in an email. She added that “the order certainly indicates a high degree of initial judicial skepticism from five justices on the court,” and that the ruling would raise serious questions from nations that signed on to the landmark Paris climate change pact in December.

On one level, this should not be a surprise. Over the past decade, the so-called Roberts Court has shown itself to be arguably the most pro-business court in American history — ruling in favor of large corporations on a variety of issues, large and small. Even with polls showing that a majority of Americans believe the science on climate change and that action is needed, it’s par for the current course that the Supreme Court would seek to block Obama’s reasonable policies. And that is very bad news for the environment.

It’s also one more reminder of how important our current election is. Many experts say that the next president — if she or he serves two terms — is likely to select as many as three new justices, because of the age of the current court and the law of averages. That will surely decide whether the Supreme Court keeps its current, pro-business, anti-environment slant, or whether America will once again have an independent, forward-looking judiciary. The future composition of the court is going to affect many critical issues. But the future of our climate, and Planet Earth, is arguably the most important thing on the High Court’s docket.

Read more about the Supreme Court decision from the New York Times:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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