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"Extremely dangerous path": Supreme Court decision on EPA is a step backward in fighting climate change, experts warn

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson makes history
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson makes Supreme Court history 02:16

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to strictly regulate emissions from power plants, a move that signals a major setback in the fight against the climate crisis.

In a 6-3 opinion along ideological lines, the nation's highest court ruled in West Virginia v. EPA that the federal agency does not have the authority to regulate industry greenhouse gas emissions. The case stems from former President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would have enforced mandates for how much emissions power plants could emit. The plan was never officially implemented as it faced legal challenges and was rolled back under the Trump administration.

The court's opinion states that when it comes to capping carbon dioxide emissions, "is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme." It also said that a "decision of such magnitude and consequence" should reside with Congress. 

In a statement, President Biden called it a "devastating decision" that "risks damaging our nation's ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change."

He added, "I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis."

Some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, applauded the decision, but supporters of climate action quickly condemned it. 

Climate and health behavioral scientist Sweta Chakraborty, president of the climate solutions group We Don't Have Time, told CBS News the court "took a sledgehammer to one of EPA's most important tools."

"We're talking about increased air pollution that has impacts on human health, the environment, and generally our future trajectory towards planet warming, which we desperately need to veer off of," she said, adding later, "The fossil fuel interests behind this case claiming victory today are taking us back 50 years to when Big Oil and other corporations could pump deadly pollution into our air and water without any limits."

And it's not just carbon emissions. The Supreme Court's decision also sets a "dangerous precedent" that other EPA regulations can be dismissed, she said.

"This is really going against all of the evidence and science that we know is requiring more regulation," Chakraborty said. "Having this type of ruling is actually saying … we can actually unapologetically support the polluting of our communities in the United States. And that's an extremely dangerous path to go down."

A "real setback" in tackling climate change

Power plants and smokestacks are "one of the single largest sources" of national and global climate pollution, according to Environmental Defense Fund general counsel Vickie Patton. That's what the regulations at issue in this case sought to address.

"Today's Supreme Court ruling undermines EPA's authority to protect people from smokestack climate pollution at a time when all evidence shows we must take action with great urgency," she said on Thursday. "This is judicial overreach." 

While the case was still undergoing review by the Supreme Court, Patton told CBS News, the EPA was "quite clear" that any regulations would come from a clean slate and involved all stakeholders to develop pollution standards. "A number of" power companies also expressed support for the EPA's authority, as well as the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, she said.

The industry sector, according to the EPA, accounts for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. — most of which is from the burning of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere, increasing global temperatures.

The United Nations and scientists around the world have warned for years that failing to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions will result in "extreme" and "unprecedented" impacts around the world, including more catastrophic storm damage, devastating droughts, and threats to health and the global economy

"Decisions like today's ... make it harder to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, for a healthy, liveable planet," Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General, said in a statement, CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk reports. "But we also need to remember that an emergency as global in nature as climate change requires a global response, and the actions of a single nation should not and cannot make or break whether we reach our climate objectives." 

A danger to human health 

The U.N. has warned that the world needs to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, compared to pre-industrial levels, to minimize the worst impacts of climate change. Doing so is critical, Chakraborty said, as "human health and the warming of the planet is inextricably linked." 

"If we actually discuss this in terms of human health impacts, the more we increase the temperature of the planet, the more we're increasing air pollution, as well, which has negative detrimental health outcomes," she said, adding, "those that are most likely to experience it first and foremost, our vulnerable communities."

A 2021 study found that fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for causing nearly 1 in 5 deaths worldwide every year. This year, the World Health Organization found that 99% of the world is breathing poor-quality air, mostly because of fossil fuel emissions. 

In the U.S., the impacts of climate change have historically impacted low-income communities and people of color the most. Industrial facilities are often located in these areas, polluting the air and causing health problems for people who live nearby. 

Along with experiencing poorer air quality, people in these areas are also more likely to bear the brunt of higher global temperatures, Chakraborty said. And an increase in fossil fuel emissions in the absence of federal regulation will only amplify those conditions.

"These districts that have been redlined, on average, experience higher temperatures by a few degrees to five or six degrees than their more affluent communities. And that is dangerous for human health," she said. "...These communities will continue to suffer. We are seeing a continued legacy of environmental racism with the Supreme Court decision." 

For Michele Roberts, co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, this is an issue that hits home. CBS News spoke with her as she was with her family in Wilmington, Delaware, where people of color have long felt the effects of a lack of climate resiliency. 

Housing segregation and redlining has resulted in communities with majority Black and Brown populations suffering from flooding and other weather- and health-related issues. Without adequate steps to reduce rising temperatures, those problems will only heighten. 

"For me, as a Black woman, post-Freddie Gray and 'I can't breathe" and Black Lives Matter and all of these things, I hope that this is the push that this entire country needs," she said of the Supreme Court's decision. "My father died a week ago knowing these things were happening. My father was 87 years old and said 'It's on you now.' But he said, 'the good news is, if you all have the sense to work together, you can get it done.'"

"Self-regulation doesn't exist" 

Without federal oversight, many experts have little faith that industries will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Chakraborty said the efforts being made to do so are "too few and too far in between." 

"Self-regulation doesn't exist in the fossil fuel industry," she said. "...I think it's very clear that the primary motivation for oil and gas executives is to continue to line their pockets to continue to get the support of shareholders so that conservatives in Congress can put forward legislation that continues to allow for oil and gas drilling." 

The only way to ensure emissions are reduced is to enforce strict regulations, Chakraborty said, noting that revamped policies, including clean energy tax credits and ending oil and gas subsidies, are essential in tackling the crisis. 

"With this ruling coming out of the Supreme Court, we're actually going back to supporting dirty energy. … We are allowing for a free-for-all," she said. "And it couldn't be a worse time. We are in a climate emergency."

Patton said the response requires "all hands on deck," particularly when it comes to the Biden administration's plans, and the president's pledge to cut climate pollution in half by 2030.

"That's the commitment that we all have a stake in working toward, to save lives and to build a stronger clean energy economy for all," she said.

Roberts said she hopes the setback from the court will be an "extra push" for change. 

"We came together because of the failures and the inconsistencies with the climate and with the climate polices that really were not impacting everyone," she said. "…After decisions like the one have been made, now it's time for us to organize, educate, mobilize and take action. And that's what we're ready to do." 

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