The Supreme Court Battle and the Climate Crisis

The media need to urgently cover the implications for climate policy of putting judge Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images News / Getty Images

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Imagine any serious adult saying they don’t know whether gravity is real. That, in effect, is what judge Amy Coney Barrett testified to the US Senate during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week. After demurring that she had no “firm views” about climate change, Barrett told California Democrat and vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris that she would not comment further because climate science is “a very contentious matter of public debate.”

It’s not, of course. “There is as much scientific consensus about human-caused climate change as there is about gravity,” Michael Mann, one the world’s leading climate scientists, recently told 60 Minutes. And Barrett’s views about climate science matter enormously.

The Supreme Court plays a decisive, if often overlooked, role in shaping US environmental policy. The Obama administration was able to regulate greenhouse gas emissions because the Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, that greenhouse gases qualify as a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act of 1970. Next year, the court will hear a case in which state and local governments are suing fossil fuel companies for the climate damages knowingly caused by the companies’ activities.

Much has been said in the press about the potential consequences of Barrett’s nomination for Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, and rightly so. But the press also needs to make clear the implications of a Barrett appointment for the climate crisis and, specifically, the US government’s legal authority to address that crisis. Given Republicans’ determination to rush this process—the final Senate vote is reportedly scheduled for Monday, October 26—newsrooms will have to work fast.

A handful of good early stories on this subject can bring journalists up to speed and inform further reporting. The New York Times explained how putting Barrett on the court could imperil not only Massachusetts v. EPA but also the EPA’s subsequent “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare; the finding that provided the legal authority for the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan. E&E News quoted Jason Rylander, an attorney with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, who suggested that Barrett’s inability to “admit climate change is real” cast doubt on how she could “fairly assess the validity of law and regulations enacted to address it.”

InsideClimate News published the most instructive piece to date—a detailed examination of how Barrett’s legal views, especially with respect to government regulation, clash with the very notion of government action against climate change. The author, Marianne Levell, interviewed environmental law scholars who described Barrett’s grooming by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that abhors government regulation as an infringement on economic liberty and has propelled scores of alumni onto federal courts. A close reading of Barrett’s writings, the scholars said, reveals an originalist view of the Constitution that would likely make her “inclined to chip away at or overturn Massachusetts v. EPA.”

The scholars were especially concerned that the Supreme Court could, with Barrett’s help, limit the right of individual states to sue under the Clean Air Act. To date, Lavelle reported, “115 multi-state lawsuits [have been] filed to block or reverse Trump administration actions like repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the weakening of fuel economy standards and the elimination of requirements to control methane emissions at oil and gas industry facilities.” She added that “more than a third of the cases are still pending, and most will be headed for the Supreme Court.”

The so-called #ExxonKnew lawsuits, which seek to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the damages their products have caused, as well as for the companies’ decades of knowing and lying about those damages, could be at particular risk. The Supreme Court has already put on next year’s docket a case in which BP and other companies are appealing lower court rulings in suits filed by five cities—Baltimore, Maryland; Boulder, Colorado; and Imperial Beach, Richmond, and Santa Cruz, California—as well as three California counties. The oil companies argue that the cases should be heard in federal court, a contention that the local governments dismiss as a legally baseless delaying tactic.

Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination illustrates a core principle of good climate journalism: every beat in the newsroom—from weather and the economy to, in this case, politics and the law—is part of the climate beat. Granted, unpacking the climate implications of this story is no simple task, especially given Republicans’ haste to vote on Barrett’s nomination before Election Day. Given the stakes, however, newsrooms must somehow rise to the challenge.

Some of the Week’s Essential Climate News

  • Drilled News, in response to the ongoing collapse of local news in America, has launched a new project it calls Drilled Local, in which Drilled will partner with local news organizations and reporters across the country to boost local and regional climate reporting. The project’s first stories will focus on how climate is weighing on local elections in Ohio, Louisiana, Tennessee, and elsewhere. The story about Ohio, where Republicans’ pricey bailout of two nuclear power plants seems to have put climate on the ballot, is available nowThe Ohio story is available for republication by CCNow partners; further stories from Drilled Local will be made available in the Sharing Library as they are released.
  • The Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations are out with a new installment in their “Hidden Epidemics” series about a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria that climate change is helping to spread along the US East Coast. “As the overheating planet alters the oceans … the bacteria are multiplying in places where they already thrived and creeping into places where they never did,” the piece explains. More Americans than ever are growing sick, but health departments seem ill-equipped to respond. This story is available for republication by CCNow partners; an easy-to-use document with the plain text of the article, graphics, and more is available here.
  • For CBS News, correspondent David Pogue gives a portrait of the US at a climate crossroads—a primer, really, for those not up to speed on the climate story. The effects of climate change are all too clear, he says, and more Americans than ever express concern about climate change. The federal government has done “virtually nothing” about it, but many cities, states, universities, and corporations have forged ahead. The scientist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson tells Pogue that she’s not quite an optimist, but that’s no reason to delay further action. “Honestly, who are we to give up?” Johnson asks. “We have to try.”
  • NBC News visits Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” where poor and mostly Black residents have long been exposed to harmful chemicals and toxins from nearby factories—and now face a new threat from a planned 2,400-acre development by a Taiwanese plastics company. President Trump, the piece explains, has not directly taken up issues of environmental justice, but they’re a key aspect of Joe Biden’s climate plan.
  • Climate Tracker, which trains young journalists around the world to cover climate change, has updates from several countries: In Egypt, extreme heat has brought rampant crop loss, and so farmers are turning to new, climate-resilient agricultural practices. In Kenya, northern villagers are utilizing an advanced technique to promote tree growth in areas that have turned dry and barren in recent years. In Uganda, new oil and gas discoveries are threatening not just the environment but upwards of 12,000 families which are being displaced, at a time when activists say the country should instead focus on sustainable energy solutions. These stories are available for republication by CCNow partners; further stories from Climate Tracker are available in our Sharing Library.
  • Nature, for the first time in the journal’s 175-year history, has endorsed a candidate for president of the United States: Joe Biden. Nature joins Scientific American and the New England Journal of Medicine (with its first-ever endorsement in 208 years) in breaking from apolitical norms, citing the president’s war against science as it relates to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and more. “Trump claims to put ‘America First,’” Nature writes. “But in his response to the pandemic, Trump has put himself first, not America.” Biden, conversely, “must be given an opportunity to restore trust in truth, in evidence, in science, and in other institutions of democracy.”

***As a reminder, great Climate Politics 2020 stories are available for republication by CCNow partners in our Curated Collection from the joint coverage week and, as always, the Sharing Library. Plain text and visual assets for the stories are here.***