The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling enables a free-riding global pariah—unless Americans reach pro-climate consensus

By Robert Socolow | July 5, 2022

Red elephant and blue donkey with a picture of Earth from spaceFor America to continue to lead on climate change action, new coalitions across political parties will be needed. Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Earth photo credit: NASA. Donkey and elephant by Sagearbor

The starting point for a useful discussion of the US response to climate change must be this:

  1. We human beings live on a small planet.
  2. We have discovered a large energy source buried away for eons, fossil fuel, which, used in the cheapest way, produces carbon dioxide in quantities that are changing the planet’s atmosphere on a global scale. These changes are deleterious to humanity’s well-being.
  3. Fossil fuels are present below ground in such immense quantities that, in the absence of deliberate policy, they are likely to remain the lowest-cost energy options for many decades. Yet “more of the same” for just another few decades will make the impacts of climate change far worse than they are at present.
  4. Researchers don’t know how fast bad outcomes will arrive, but humans are risk-averse, and thus arguments for decisive action to swap our current energy system for a very different one are compelling.
  5. Such a swap is extraordinarily difficult in the best of situations.

The Supreme Court just made strategic climate action in the United States more difficult. Effective strategic action must be coordinated at the federal level. If initiative now flows away from the federal government and toward communities, cities, and states, far less will be accomplished. There are formidable obstacles at every level of governance—notably societal inertia, special interests, and “losers” who need to be compensated. Most sub-national units have neither the resources nor the commitment to accomplish very much.

The international consequences of the Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v EPA are even larger. Strategic action must be globally coordinated, because every country is adversely affected by inaction on climate change. At a time when global climate coordination is in a fledgling stage, with promising though halting efforts in view in the Paris-Glasgow process, the new Supreme Court decision clips its wings. The United States will lose the benefits that would have come from those positive actions in other countries that will now not happen because of the United States’ negative influence on the ambitions of these countries.

On the global level, it appears almost painless today to be a free rider while other nations take action. Granted, the European Union may soon impose border adjustment taxes that penalize imports from countries that have not put a price on carbon and thereby incentivize climate policies in such countries. But these border taxes aren’t here yet, and without US acquiescence (after all, these taxes could be imposed on us) they will probably be delayed. Since the realities of damage from climate change are accepted everywhere by now, the United States may experience shaming, and it is possible that the rest of the world will move forward without us, relegating the United States of America to pariah status.

The six Supreme Court justices who were the majority in this case know all of this. A charitable reading of their decision is that they are seeking to encourage action from Congress. It is significant that the decision keeps the greenhouse challenge within EPA’s authority, confounding more pessimistic expectations. Carbon dioxide remains a regulated pollutant.

Looking deeply, why did this happen? Over the past 20 years, a consensus in favor of environmental activism has gradually disappeared. Climate change affects all Americans comparably, so one would expect, at a minimum, rival proposals from the two principal political parties. Yet the posture of the Republican Party is to be relaxed about climate change and to be willing to postpone dealing with it indefinitely. And the Democratic Party, even though seriously engaged, is nonetheless willing to settle for fragile actions that are vulnerable to even small swings in a closely divided Congress.

West Virginia v EPA calls attention the need for new coalitions that create robust political majorities. It makes consensus-building an imperative. A place to start is with the fossil fuel industry, which can contribute expertise on behalf of low-carbon technology and can be induced to do so.

The present time appears to be a moment of realignment for the global world order, within which the likelihood of great power conflict is increasing at startling speed. Climate change is the pre-eminent non-military problem-solving assignment that requires capacity-building that goes beyond the nation state. The world is fortunate, in a perverse way, to have such a problem to chew on at this time. The cooperation among the great powers essential to address climate change may lower the chances of global decimation through war. The last thing the world needs is for the country that had been the world’s leader to become a debilitating force, a free rider, a pariah.

To restore America’s leadership in the international struggle to slow the pace of climate change and to lower the risks to ourselves, Americans must pressure both major parties to engage with each other to decouple climate change from the culture wars, where it never should have landed in the first place, and to produce a path forward that can be broadly defended for its pragmatic wisdom and its fairness. The path will need to be clearly defined for the next few years, yet responsive to new options and changed perceptions in later years. It is within the capabilities of American society to stake out a path that, in spite of its substantial inherent costs and disruptions, will be judged overwhelmingly by public opinion to be an appropriately vigorous response to a common danger. Were that to happen, historians would look back on West Virginia v EPA as a blessing in disguise.

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Brian Whit
Brian Whit
1 year ago

1.2…..5, Here’s 6. Once changed, the environment doesn’t ‘come back. We have much less than a ‘few decades, and it should be reported so. His conclusion: “ The cooperation among the great powers essential to address climate change may lower the chances of global decimation through war. “ The Supreme Court just hamstrung the EPAs usual way of doing things. Brazil is chopping up rainforest faster this year than any on record. NATO has identifiedChina as.a threat to its security– that’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, China is online to strenuously catch up to the US in nukes. At a time when… Read more »