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The Supreme Court’s E.P.A. Decision Is More Gloom Than Doom

On climate, as recently as several years ago, advocates had hopes of seeing a much different case reach the court and radically reshape the climate priorities of the country. In Juliana v. United States, often called “Kids v. Climate,” a group of underage litigants hoped to establish a younger generation’s fundamental right to a future undisturbed by the climate impacts imposed by earlier generations. Given the makeup of the court even then, this was probably always a somewhat optimistic hope (at the moment, Juliana is stalled in District Court). But instead, West Virginia v. E.P.A. is the climate case — and decision — the country got. The mood is grim, and “we’re only as screwed as we were yesterday” is not much of a comfort or a rallying cry.

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Internationally, the climate reputation of the United States is already somewhat tattered. The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil, its second largest producer of gas and its third largest consumer of coal, and also its largest historical emitter by an outrageous margin, responsible for about twice as much carbon damage already done to the planet as any other country on Earth. On a per capita basis, the country has done five or six times as much damage as China, which is the second most responsible nation; given likely emissions curves this century, that gap will probably never close.

And yet — despite that responsibility, despite the United States’ early environmental action a half-century ago, and despite the fact that, thanks to abundant land and renewable resources, it may now be the best positioned in the world to race through a power transition, which would also generate considerable prosperity — the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, undermined negotiations in Copenhagen and withdrew at least briefly from the Paris climate accord.

Domestically, it failed to pass major climate legislation with a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority in 2009, and failed again in 2021 and so far in 2022, with a slimmer majority but still with control of both Congress and the White House. And according to at least one recent assessment from O.D.I. Climate and the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, it has fallen much more spectacularly short in delivering its own promises of climate finance aid to the developing world than any of the other nation in the Global North — producing a shortfall of more than $40 billion in 2020, when no other country missed its mark by even $5 billion.

This is all terrible. But it isn’t much changed by West Virginia v. E.P.A. either. U.S. emissions are not likely to rise. The powers the judgment restricts were never actually exercised under the Clean Power Plan. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule, devised by former President Donald Trump as a fossil-fuel-friendly alternative to the C.P.P., is not in effect either. And American emissions have fallen faster without a cap-and-trade program and without the C.P.P. than advocates of either suggested was possible under those programs.

That’s not to say that where things stood yesterday is an encouraging place to be, or that the decision is meaningless. It could well prove a significant setback in the years ahead, though presumably only under a more aggressive or more empowered Democratic administration than this one.

For the time being, it probably changes more about the way we might imagine possible climate futures than anything about the one we are actually building today through inaction. But when it’s all hands on deck, you don’t want one hand tied behind your back. Which is why, for those keeping a close eye on the ever shortening timelines for action, today probably feels considerably more restrictive still — a handcuffing.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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