SCOTUS gutted part of the EPA, but it won’t stop climate progress

Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, near Emmett, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Among the Supreme Court’s recent string of backward decisions, the conservative supermajority undercut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate carbon pollution from the power sector — a key approach in achieving domestic (and international) climate goals. I served on President Obama’s White House climate team and helped launch the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the climate rule aimed at curbing carbon pollution from power plants — and the subject of the Supreme Court’s latest assault, this time on our right to clean air and healthy lives. 

So, what’s the good news? The EPA retains base authority under the Clean Air Act, and it will still push forward on climate action in other, meaningful ways. 

During my time at EPA, I helped craft the Clean Power Plan’s frame around not just what we were doing to regulate the power sector, but why. Throughout the life of the EPA, the “why” hasn’t changed. Environmental health challenges persist, and none greater than climate change. If anything, the EPA’s track record on these issues demonstrates it must be emboldened rather than undermined. 

The EPA was the product of a populist cry for protection at a time when rivers burned and schools were closed for smog days. The EPA has become a contemporary right-wing target, but it was built by a Republican administration. The law that created it, the Clean Air Act, was passed by Congress unanimously. Congress sought to empower a regulatory body to move at the pace of scientific discoveries to ensure our right to healthy lives is protected. Over the course of half a century, the EPA has delivered: from 1970 to 2019, emissions of key air pollutants dropped 77 percent and the economy has grown 285 percent. EPA has made strides across so many threats to our health: acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, mercury, contaminated water, toxic soil — the list goes on. 

But thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, our climb toward needed climate action and public health protections is steeper. There are demonstrated co-benefits to carbon pollution reduction and asthma attacks and mercury pollution don’t bend to the will of a court.

Although it’s a historic setback, it is also familiar. We’ve been here; the tired special-interest, industry-funded playbook has not changed. Fossil fuel mongers will find any and all desperate avenues to stack the deck, no matter the branch of government — judicial, executive or legislative. It’s not new. Decades ago, before the Clean Air Act existed and cars spewed toxic tailpipe pollution, industry-paid “scientists” to give bogus congressional testimony assuring leaded gasoline was safe. During my time in government, a GOP leader brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “disprove” climate change. They were wrong. And they still are. 

The good thing about familiar setbacks, we have built the muscle memory to do something about it.

The Biden administration’s EPA, under Administrator Michael Regan’s leadership, can and will achieve its climate goals, despite the Supreme Court decision. EPA still operates under broad Clean Air Act authority and will continue to reign in emissions beyond the power sector — including cars, refrigerants, building efficiency and more. For example, the Energy Star program, one of EPA’s flagship efficiency and pollution reduction programs, is popular among consumers and businesses and won’t be going away anytime soon. 

The clean energy train has left the station. Many were skeptical the United States would achieve our carbon reduction goals set out at international negotiations in Copenhagen years ago, but we exceeded them. The global economy continues to decarbonize operations and shift to clean power at scale, despite the machinations of wrong-headed policymaking funded by regressive fossil fuel interests. 

EPA’s authority may have been rattled, but the EPA is still standing. President Biden brought climate to the forefront of the agenda in a historic whole-of-government approach; he’ll continue to push Congress to act, while states and cities will continue stepping up. Beyond public sector action, we can expect more needed public-private partnerships, more climate tech development and more corporate climate commitments. 

Like many of the Supreme Court’s decisions in the last couple of weeks, the climate decision is a setback. What we do now may take a different shape, but why we do it has not changed. It’s been affirmed. Progress can’t be stopped. And those of us endeavoring for a cleaner, more stable and more just future are far from done. 

Kevin Samy was a member of President Obama’s climate team and served as a senior adviser and chief speechwriter to former Administrator Gina McCarthy at the EPA. He also served as speechwriter to then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. His opinions are his own. 

Tags Biden Climate change Coal emissions EPA Fossil fuels Obama

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