Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Supreme Court gets it: The U.S. must address global warming

By Nancy Jane Moore

A well-documented rise in global temperatures has coincided with a significant increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Respected scientists believe the two trends are related.

So begins the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that the Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to address automobile emissions.

Finally -- a branch of government that understands the U.S. can't just ignore global warming! With luck -- plus the current weakness in the Bush administration and strong sentiment in the Democratic-controlled Congress for dealing with climate change -- EPA will stop trying to come up with reasons why it shouldn't regulate emissions and just adopt some rules.

The firm decision -- authored by the court's oldest member, Justice John Paul Stevens (who also wrote the court's anti-torture ruling in the Guantanamo case) -- prevailed by five votes to four: Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer rounded out the majority, while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia each wrote dissents on separate points, both of which were joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The court made three important decisions. First of all, it found the plaintiffs -- states, local governments, and private organizations -- have standing, meaning that they can actually bring a suit. (If you want more information on standing, check out this post and this post on Balkinization.) Massachusetts (one of 12 states suing along with D.C., New York City, Baltimore and American Samoa) can sue, the court said, because as a state, it has the responsibility to take care of the area under its control. And, the court said, coastline loss by Massachusetts is a sufficient injury to allow the state to sue EPA if the agency isn't doing its job of protecting the environment.

Rejecting EPA arguments that regulating greenhouse gases from car emissions wouldn't make any real difference because they are only a small part of the problem, the court said:

While it may be true that regulating motor-vehicle emissions will not by itself reverse global warming, it by no means follows that we lack jurisdiction to decide whether EPA has a duty to takes steps to slow or reduce it.

Secondly, the court said -- unequivocally -- that the Clean Air Act covers carbon dioxide from car emissions. "The statute is unambiguous," Stevens wrote. And the fact that the U.S. Department of Transportation is charged with regulating car mileage standards does not keep EPA from regulating car emissions.

Thirdly, the court dismissed EPA's arguments that regulating emissions would interfere with the administration's "voluntary" programs addressing global warming, including negotiations with other countries to reduce their emissions. Such policy reasons, the court said

have nothing to do with whether greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change. Still less do they amount to a reasoned justification for declining to form a scientific judgment. In particular, while the President has broad authority in foreign affairs, that authority does not extend to the refusal to execute domestic laws.

In other words, the president doesn't get to pick and chose which laws he's going to enforce. It's about time someone explained that to Bush, the man who would be king.

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