There were two front-page-worthy developments on Monday in the world of climate policy. Perhaps even more significant than either one was the fact that they were at cross-purposes.
At 6 A.M.—noon in central Europe—the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest warning to humanity. The group released a report on climate “impacts, adaptation and vulnerability,” which ran to more than thirty-five hundred pages. Hans-Otto Pörtner, a physiologist and marine biologist, based in Germany, who co-chaired the team that assembled the report, summed up its findings as follows: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
An abridged version of the report, the so-called Summary for Policymakers, would seem to obviate the need for dystopian fiction. “The rise in weather and climate extremes,” the summary notes, has already led to “irreversible impacts.” Heat waves have become hotter, droughts deeper, and wildfires more frequent. These changes are “contributing to humanitarian crises” that are driving people from all regions of the world out of their homes. Those who have done the least to cause the problem are likely suffering the most from it. What the report calls “global hotspots of high human vulnerability” include East Africa, Central America, and small island nations. So far, at least, attempts to adapt to the changes have been wildly inadequate—“focused more on planning” than actual implementation.
Plants and animals, too, are being pushed much faster than they can adapt. According to the report, “hundreds of local losses of species” can be traced to climate change, as can “mass mortality events” both on land and in the oceans. The prognosis for forests, coral reefs, and low-lying coastal wetlands is bleak. “Damages to and transformation of ecosystems are already key risks for every region due to past global warming and will continue to escalate,” the report observes. António Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” He added, “This abdication of leadership is criminal.”
Just a few hours after the I.P.C.C. released its findings, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. As Ian Millhiser, a senior correspondent at Vox, observed on Twitter, the case “could potentially nuke the EPA’s authority to fight climate change.” This would guarantee still more “failed climate leadership.”
At the heart of West Virginia v. E.P.A. is a set of regulations that never went into effect. The regulations, known collectively as the Clean Power Plan, were finalized by the E.P.A. in 2015, under President Barack Obama, with the aim of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants by roughly a third compared with 2005 levels. To achieve this aim, the C.P.P. imposed emissions targets that each state would have to meet. The targets would have forced some coal-fired power plants either to close, switch to another fuel source, or find some alternative way to reduce emissions, such as capturing the carbon coming out of their smokestacks. More than two dozen states, most of them Republican-led, rushed to file a lawsuit against the plan, and, in a highly unusual move, the Supreme Court, in early 2016, issued an injunction. It was the first time that the Court had blocked a set of regulations before the rules could be reviewed at the federal appellate level.
After Donald Trump took office, in 2017, the E.P.A scrapped the C.P.P. and replaced it with a much weaker set of rules. These rules, for their part, were struck down in 2021 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the day before President Joe Biden’s Inauguration. Mindful of what the Supreme Court had done to the C.P.P., the E.P.A., under Biden, announced that it was going to start fresh on the issue. (Meanwhile, in most states, the C.P.P.’s targets had already been met, largely because coal plants did switch to burning natural gas, which is less carbon-intensive.) Before the E.P.A. could come up with a new set of rules, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the old, never-implemented C.P.P., which is the case it heard on Monday.
What’s potentially so dangerous about the case is that the Court, with its 6–3 conservative majority, could use it to hamper the E.P.A.’s ability to regulate carbon emissions at all—along with many other pollutants. During oral argument, many of the Justices’ inquiries involved a doctrine known as “major questions,” which stipulates that federal agencies can’t issue regulations that would have “major” political or economic impacts unless they have explicit instructions from Congress to do so. (This doctrine has become a touchstone for groups, and companies, that oppose federal rules of all kinds, and it was invoked by the Supreme Court in January to strike down the Biden Administration’s mandate that large corporations require employees to get COVID vaccines, or submit weekly negative tests.)
To regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, the E.P.A. has relied on the Clean Air Act, which became law in 1970. The act was drafted to be flexible enough to address pollutants that had not yet been recognized as dangerous. Fifty-two years ago, few lawmakers had any notion of climate change, so it’s hardly surprising that the law didn’t mention carbon emissions; nevertheless, opponents have seized on this fact. (Similarly, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, also in 1970, it could not have anticipated a pandemic that would occur half a century in the future.)
Of course, it would be useful if Congress approved legislation explicitly aimed at curbing CO2 emissions. These days, that appears about as likely as getting the proverbial snowball through Hell. Which is one reason that we can expect the state of the world, along with future I.P.C.C. reports, to grow even grimmer.