Clean Energy Insights

The Supreme Court versus the climate

6 minute read

As featured in the Hill

This Fourth of July was a somber one, to put it mildly. Our democracy, our hard-won rights, even our lives, are under assault. And the governmental structure meant to provide checks and balances seems to have derailed. Or perhaps the operators have lost the manual. Or are simply deciding not to use it.

What many have dubbed an “illegitimate” Supreme Court, made three decisions in the last two weeks that endanger Americans now, and for generations to come. And rather than checking the court’s radical overreaches, Congress and the White House seem to be taking their lunch break.

The “anti-democratic” Supreme Court

Women’s reproductive rights, gun safety and climate protection are all supported by the vast majority of Americans.

But unfortunately, “the Supreme Court has gone from being undemocratic to being anti-democratic,” according to New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, “that makes a mockery of the public will.”

The first two decisions you’ve certainly heard about. The high court made it easier to carry concealed weapons, just weeks after the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, and days before the mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park. Then the court also overturned Roe v. Wade, turning back the clock 50 years on women’s rights, a decision that the ACLU described as “taking from them a right that has been central to their ability to plan their lives, families, and careers … Today’s ruling will … have deadly consequences.”

The latest decision you might not have heard as much about, but it is also terrifying. “This Supreme Court decision will be visible in the geologic records for eons to come,” quips writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben. While the world’s scientific community continues to ring the alarm bells on climate change, as our very narrow window to avert the worst of it is rapidly closing, the Supreme Court decided that now would be a good time to limit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s ability to regulate climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The court ruled the EPA does not have broad power over carbon emissions regulation under the Clean Air Act — because Congress didn’t explicitly list the pollutant in the 1970-era law.

Now, experts have pointed out that the ruling was not as bad as it could have been. The court has limited the EPA in certain ways but not others, which still leaves plenty of avenues for strong climate action from the agency. But the outrage should remain.

Where are the Democrats?

Like overturning Roe v. Wade, EPA v. West Virginia was a ruling decades in the making by the GOP and the fossil fuel industry. Like overturning Roe, Democrats saw this coming a mile away. Yet, they seemingly did nothing to try and prevent or limit it.

What’s worse, it’s not like Democrats are just sitting on the sideline. The day after the decision, the Biden administration proposed plans for new offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

It’s bad enough that the Democrats can’t get climate legislation passed with narrow majorities in both houses of Congress and the control of the White House. It’s even worse that the Supreme Court is further limiting the EPA’s ability to solve the problem — but President Biden proposing new drilling a day after the ruling is throwing salt in the wound.

State and local policy

When it comes to climate change, it’s easy to get discouraged, especially when the leaders we trusted to protect us appear to be selling us out.

However, while the federal government may feel like a lost cause on climate, thankfully state and local policies have been our saving grace. This is why activists are redirecting their efforts locally as they did during the Trump administration years. Stacy Tellinghuisen, policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates described “states being the laboratories of democracy” that can “create these templates or examples and demonstrate to the federal government that progress is really possible.”


Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University researching nonviolent movements of the past century, found that to create significant political change, a movement needs about 3.5 percent of the population actively involved in protests, dubbed the 3.5 percent rule. Given that 33 percent of Americans are alarmed about climate change, getting 3.5 percent to take action seems doable.

As bad as things are, we must remember our country has been through lots of previous difficult moments. During the 1960s, amidst a senseless war in Vietnam, drafted young men were being killed by the thousands, civic leaders from JFK to RFK, to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Medgar Evers and more, were being shot and killed. I can’t imagine the horror and grief and anger that Americans must have been feeling during those tumultuous times.

And yet, what Americans did in response was nothing short of heroic. They protested, marching in the streets. They protested with art, music and poetry. They protested with sit-ins, strikes, and by organizing politically. They changed the zeitgeist. With this came the end of the Vietnam War, the passage of civil rights laws that ended segregation and strengthened voting rights, as well as the first Earth Day, the environmental movement and the formation of the EPA. This cultural shift, and the resulting political shift, was not led by politicians or businesses. It was led by citizens who wouldn’t accept the state of disrepair their country had fallen into. They weren’t going to sit by and watch as their rights, and in fact their lives, were being stripped away.

In every generation, citizens have to fight for their rights. The difference now is that it’s not just our rights we’re fighting for. Future generations are also counting on us to ensure their right to a livable planet, a stable climate and a functioning ecosystem. It’s time we answer the call.

Andreas Karelas is the author of “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America.” He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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