But his credibility on combating climate change — another key foreign policy priority — was dented by the Supreme Court ruling, even if administration lawyers will seek alternative ways to cut emissions and global market forces continue to make coal-fired power stations unprofitable or obsolete.
Global climate action depends on a collective effort. Smaller countries won’t cut their emissions if the biggest polluters, like the US, won’t. The tough political choices required to cut emissions are impossible for all to make if some nations avoid them. And other powers will constrain their own climate targets if they fear losing a competitive advantage to rivals that don’t change their economies to lower reliance on fossil fuels. If Biden’s capacity to reach ambitious US climate goals is compromised, he will be unable to lead by example and an already creaky plan to avert catastrophic warming across the globe could be in jeopardy.
The United Nations was quick to warn Thursday that the Supreme Court’s decision threatened to disrupt efforts to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2% while pursuing efforts to maintain a 1.5% threshold.
“Decisions like today’s in the US, or any other major emitting economy, make it harder to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, for a healthy, livable planet, especially as we need to accelerate the phase out of coal and the transition to renewable energies,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
“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.”
US climate change leadership has often been erratic
The world is used to US gyrations on climate change.
“This has certainly made it much, much more difficult without a doubt,” Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, told CNN on Thursday after the Supreme Court opinion was released.
In essence, the court ruled that the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA the authority to regulate the carbon emissions from power plants that contribute to climate change. Because the law was enacted in 1970, it did not contain detailed instructions for the agency to combat climate change, which, at the time, was not a widespread global concern.
“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,'” Roberts wrote in his majority opinion. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”
In her dissent to the Roberts opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, who was nominated by Obama, described a dire picture of a warming world with intense hurricanes, drought, the destruction of ecosystems and floods that consume large swathes of the eastern seaboard. And she argued that the Congress had already granted the EPA the authority to mitigate “catastrophic harms.”
“Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,” she wrote, accusing the conservative justices of making themselves the “decision maker on climate policy.”
“I cannot think of many things more frightening,” Kagan concluded.
Republicans welcome the court’s reining in of bureaucracy
Leading conservative politicians immediately welcomed the decision, heralding it as a win for constraining government overreach in Washington by unelected bureaucrats.
“We are pleased this case returned the power to decide one of the major environmental issues of the day to the right place to decide it: the US Congress, comprised of those elected by the people to serve the people,” said Patrick Morrisey, the Republican attorney general of West Virginia, a major coal-producing state.
“This is about maintaining the separation of powers, not climate change,” Morrisey said.
The problem, however, with the Supreme Court returning issues to Congress is lawmakers’ difficulty in getting anything significant done. The country’s polarization and the Senate filibuster rules have made advancing major bills on key issues — like voting rights and gun regulation — a challenge in a narrowly divided Senate. The recently passed gun legislation, for example, fell well short of the substantial overhauls many Democrats would have liked to have seen. But they had to pass something that could get 10 GOP votes, even though Democrats nominally have a monopoly on political power in Washington.
And there is no appetite among Republicans to tackle climate change. The court’s right-wing majority is therefore playing an important role in asserting a conservative political agenda to thwart any change a Democratic Congress and President could enact.
That’s hard for foreigners to understand when it comes to an issue as urgent as climate change. But it ensures that any efforts to commit the United States to the global climate fight will inevitably lead to years of political battles in Washington. And it is yet another example of how the country’s polarization is threatening its global leadership role.