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In Radical Ruling, Supreme Court Limits EPA’s Power to Cut Carbon Emissions & Combat Climate Crisis

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In a blow to climate activism, the Supreme Court on Thursday severely limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to place emission caps on power plants. In the case, West Virginia v. EPA, several states led by West Virginia and fossil fuel companies fought against the regulations imposed by the Obama administration under the Clean Air Act. The 6-3 ruling by the court’s conservative justices ultimately weakens the federal agency’s authority to limit carbon emissions and combat the worst effects of the climate crisis. We look at the decision’s impact on vulnerable communities, particularly lower-income, Black and Brown residents who live close to coal-fired power plants, as well as the climate emergency more broadly. “They’ve put people’s lives in danger, and they have also put in place steps that will accelerate the climate crisis,” says Mustafa Ali, formerly head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In another 6-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court has sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. President Biden decried the ruling as, quote, “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards,” unquote. The court’s ruling in the case of West Virginia v. EPA is seen as a major victory for the fossil fuel industry and a result of a decades-long attempt to limit the regulation of corporations.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts writes, “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.' But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme,” Roberts said.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan slammed the decision, writing in the dissent, “Whatever else this Court may know bout, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions.”

Justice Kagan went on to write, “The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening,” Kagan wrote.

On Capitol Hill, New York Congressmember Jamaal Bowman warned the court’s ruling will have deadly effects.

REP. JAMAAL BOWMAN: Cleaning up the grid is the only way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. So, let’s be very clear: This is yet another vicious power grab. And if we let them get away with it, people will die. Because of the reasoning used by the justices, this ruling could potentially undermine all kinds of regulations that are about saving lives and promoting well-being. We cannot, we must not, and we will not let this court stop us. The Biden administration must declare a climate emergency immediately and use every single power at its disposal.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Congressmember Jamaal Bowman.

We’re joined now by Mustafa Ali. He’s the former head of the environmental justice program at the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. Mustafa is the executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, also the CEO and founder of Revitalization Strategies.

Mustafa, welcome back to Democracy Now! First, respond to the court’s ruling.

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, you know, this radical court, the decision that they came down with is deeply disappointing. It is also destabilizing, and it is deadly. My grandmother says that when you know better, do better. The court knew better; they just decided not to do better. And because of that, they’ve put people’s lives in danger, and they have also put in place steps that will accelerate the climate crisis. We have to continue to engage with frontline communities to make sure that they are going to have the resources they need to be able to navigate this decision, as their lives have literally been put in the crosshairs.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what the original case, the West Virginia v. EPA, is. How did this all begin?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, it began because of the Clean Power Plan. Of course, we need to go back to the Clean Air Act and just share with everyone, you know, that Congress stated at that time that the Environmental Protection Agency had a right and responsibility to make sure that they were addressing the air pollution and protecting public health and the environment.

Fast-forward to the Clean Power Plan, which was actually put in place to be able to minimize the impacts that were happening from carbon pollution, to put in place the rules that are necessary to make sure that we have a safety net across our country and to be able to lower the carbon emissions. So, the case that they brought forward is a number of states who did not want EPA to be able to have the ability to do that, and, as was stated earlier, was driven by the fossil fuel-producing states, and those industries were the main drivers.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the ruling comes at a time when climate scientists are urging rich nations to significantly cut down greenhouse gas emissions and divest from fossil fuels. Of course, this not only impacts the United States; this decision will reverberate around the world. Talk about how it will impact the U.S.’s plan to cut carbon emissions by, what, 50% by the end of the decade, something that President Biden referenced when he talked about this decision being devastating.

MUSTAFA ALI: It makes it so much more difficult to be able to achieve the goals that the IPCC and the National Climate Assessment has shared with us. You know, domestically in our country, just to actually anchor folks in some facts, we’ve got between 200,000 and 300,000 people who die prematurely from air pollution. And a part of it also comes from coal-fired power plants. So, we know that not only were we trying to make sure that we are lowering the emissions that are coming out of there, the carbon emissions, but you also have sulfuric dioxides, and you have nitrogen oxides and mercury and particulate matter. So, when we know that we’ve also — those things exacerbate asthma. Twenty-four million folks in our country, 7 million kids, currently have asthma. So, all this makes it more difficult both to deal with the initial impacts of our most vulnerable communities and also to lower the emissions that are warming up our planet and our oceans on a global scale.

It also puts us in a very precarious situation, because folks look to us for guidance and leadership. We know that we have COP coming up at the end of this year. And once again, when we enter into, when we begin the development of these international treaty, folks are looking at our country to see that — if we’re living up to the words that we’re sharing with the rest of the planet. So we have to begin to move forward in a much more serious way on climate action.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you’re talking about the COP, the Conference of Parties, the U.N. climate summit that will be taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt. I want to turn to Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

SEN. ED MARKEY: [inaudible] became every polluter’s ally. And by undermining the fundamental authority which the EPA has to regulate greenhouse gases, it has harmed every person in our country, but it has also undermined America’s ability to be a leader internationally. We are going to have a difficulty in telling the rest of the world what to do when our own Supreme Court is tying the hands of the EPA behind its back. OK. It is an absolute tragedy. The only answer, ultimately, is to repeal the filibuster, to expand the Supreme Court to reclaim the two Supreme Court seats that were stolen by Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell between 2016 and 2020.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey. Your response to what he says? And then, specifically, as you talk about asthma, you are the — you were the environmental justice head of it, the environmental justice program at the EPA, which goes to the issue of the disproportionately impacted communities of color in this country, but you look more globally at the world and who is most affected when the U.S. is historically the largest polluter in the world.

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, Senator Markey was exactly right. You know, leadership matters. And we saw in the past administration that there was no leadership. In this administration, President Biden has put forth a number of different initiatives where he’s trying to not only get his arms around the climate crisis, but also create opportunities for us to create new jobs and to make sure that we are strengthening communities.

When we look, in a global context, on the sets of impacts that are happening, when we look at the wildfires and the hurricanes and the floods that are not only happening in our country, and the extreme heat events, we understand that they disproportionately impact communities of color and lower-wealth communities, both in our country and across the planet. We know that Black folks die at twice the rate when we’re dealing with extreme heat. And we also know, because of the lack of investments for decades, that when we look at the floods that are happening, it is our most vulnerable communities who continue to get hit first and worst from the floods, from the hurricanes and a number of other events that are tied to the climate crisis.

So, in this moment, we have the opportunity to not only show leadership, to make sure that $550 billion that the Senate has the opportunity to move forward on, that will help us to address the climate crisis, to rebuild communities and to make sure that we are protecting the lives of everyone in our country, but there will also be ripple effects across the planet, because as we make advances in this country, others will be able to take advantage of those. We have a responsibility in this moment not only to act, but to show real leadership and to show humanity in this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the question is how that happens now with this Supreme Court decision. Also, 14 states have sued the Biden administration to end a pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Can you put this in the context of the Supreme Court decision?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, you know, when the Supreme Court sent this decision down, you know, it has actually motivated those who have not been supporters. And let’s be very clear: The majority of the reason that folks are not being supportive in those states is because they’re placing profit over people.

So we have to raise our voices in this moment. We should be engaging with both our senators and our folks on the House side of the equation. We should be also engaging with folks in the statehouse to make sure that they know what our expectations are, that we want them to make sure that they are protecting our children and protecting our future and protecting our most vulnerable communities. And then we also have to make sure that folks are also dedicating the resources that other less developed countries will need to also be able to navigate this. All of this is literally at our fingertips. The resources exist, and the resources are there on Capitol Hill to be able to help the president and others to be able to move forward and to address these cases that are coming up through the various states.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Mustafa Ali, former head of the environmental justice program at the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. Mustafa is the executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation and head of Revitalization Strategies. And just to be clear, environmental groups have filed a pair of lawsuits seeking to block the Biden administration from restarting lease sales for oil and gas wells on public lands.

Coming up, the Supreme Court has ruled President Biden can end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program. We’ll go to San Antonio, where 53 people seeking refuge died earlier this week in the deadliest human trafficking incident in U.S. history. Stay with us.

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