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The climate math just got harder

The Supreme Court has issued one of the most important environmental rulings ever, which will make the battle against global warming even more difficult.

This newsletter is going to explain the basics of the court’s decision, and then talk to our colleague Coral Davenport about what it means: A major setback to the U.S.’s ability to keep its promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The court was asked to consider whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to issue broad, aggressive regulations on climate-warming pollution from power plants that would force many of those plants to close. In a 6-to-3 decision, the justices ruled that the agency has no such authority.

The ruling, in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, not only limits the authority of the E.P.A., but potentially that of other agencies to enact a broad array of regulations to protect the environment and public health. It was the product of a coordinated, multiyear strategy by Republican attorneys general, conservative legal activists and their funders to use the judicial system to rewrite environmental law, weakening the executive branch’s ability to tackle global warming.

It follows other big decisions this term on guns and reproductive rights that will transform the lives of a generation of Americans.

“The Supreme Court has swung to the right thanks to the three appointments by the Trump administration, and they’re not afraid to make big shifts,” said Blake Emmerson, a law professor at U.C.L.A.

The case was unusual because it focused on a program that wasn’t even in force: the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era federal regulation adopted under the Clean Air Act of 1970, which sought to govern greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. After a barrage of lawsuits from Republican states and the coal industry, the Supreme Court put the program on hold in 2016 and it never took effect.

The Biden administration tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that there were no E.P.A. regulations in place for the court to consider. That didn’t work and, in the end, the court favored the plaintiffs, a group of Republican attorneys general, who argued that only Congress should have the power to set rules that significantly affect the American economy.

Congress, however, has been mostly gridlocked on climate legislation. That lack of action by lawmakers has increased the federal government’s reliance on regulations to lower United States greenhouse gas emissions.

The power sector is the second-largest source of emissions in the United States, after transportation.

The failure of the United States — the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in history — to meet its climate targets would very likely mean the world will not be able to keep global warming at about 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels. Beyond that threshold, scientists say, the likelihood of catastrophic heat waves, drought, flooding and widespread extinctions increases significantly.

Earth has already heated an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.

I talked to Coral, who covers energy and environmental policy from The Times’s Washington bureau, to better understand what this case means for the future.

Manuela: Does this ruling mean the E.P.A. can’t curb emissions at all?

Coral: The ruling does not eliminate the E.P.A.’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But it sharply restricts it. Presidents Biden and Barack Obama had hoped to use the authority of the Clean Air Act to direct the E.P.A. to write broad, sweeping rules that would transform the electricity sector, leading to the widespread closure of coal and gas fired power plants and their replacement with wind, solar and other clean sources of electricity.

This decision means that the E.P.A. can’t do the kind of sweeping, transformational policy that climate experts say is necessary to reduce greenhouse emissions. It could instead do a very narrow, modest regulation that might slightly lower emissions at the margins.

Manuela: Can the United States ever meet its climate targets now?

Coral: The math just got harder. President Biden has pledged to the rest of the world that the United States will cut its greenhouse pollution 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. In order to do that, most experts say that the United States would need a combination of new legislation and aggressive regulations on the most polluting sectors of industry — vehicles, power plants, and oil and drilling wells. This decision takes one of those tools and makes it far less effective.

It remains unclear if Congress will pass climate legislation and what that would look like. The E.P.A. is writing aggressive new rules on vehicle pollution but those are expected to be challenged in court by the same group of plaintiffs that were victorious in Thursday’s decision.

Manuela: What can the White House or Congress do next?

Coral: President Biden and Congress still have some tools to combat climate change. There’s a spending bill stalled on Capitol Hill that includes roughly $300 billion in tax credits for wind, solar and other forms of clean energy and electric vehicles. If enacted, analysts say it could help Biden get one-third to half of the way toward his target of cutting emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. That’s a big bite.

And, the E.P.A. still has some other regulatory authority to cut emissions: It is working on new rules to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells, and new rules to accelerate the transition away from gasoline-powered cars and toward electric cars.

However, it’s still not clear if that legislation, which has been in limbo since December, will ever make it out of the Senate. And the other E.P.A. rules will be subject to lawsuits from the same group of Republican attorneys general and fossil fuel companies that were victorious in today’s Supreme Court decision.

Manuela: Does this ruling have implications for other climate cases?

Coral: It does.

There’s already a case pending in the lower courts against an E.P.A rule designed to speed the nation’s transition away gasoline-powered cars and toward electric vehicles. The case was brought by many of the same plaintiffs in the power plant case and makes the same argument: that the agency doesn’t have the authority to craft rules that would transform an entire economic sector. So this signals, though does not guarantee, that the Supreme Court would likely find in favor of the plaintiffs in that case, as well — which would limit another major tool that the federal government has to fight climate change.


The arguments: Members of the court’s conservative majority voiced skepticism that Congress had authorized the E.P.A. to decide what they said were major economic questions.

A powerful tool, gone: The ruling leaves President Biden with very few options to rein in emissions in the United States. It’s one in a series of setbacks.

Gridlocked Congress: “Build Back Better,” the Biden administration’s sweeping climate change and social policy bill, has been stalled for months.

Punishing companies: Across the United States, Republican lawmakers and their allies are pressuring corporations to drop efforts to reduce their emissions.


Thanks for reading. Because of this special Thursday edition, you won’t receive Climate Forward as usual on Friday. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message, and reply to many!

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