WILLIAMSTOWN >> It is possible that the United States' leadership in combating climate change was saved by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — or maybe not. With all due respect to a conservative justice, that is a fine irony and testimony that everything connects.
The 21st Congress of the Parties (COP21) that were signers of the United Nations framework on climate change invited the nations of the world in Paris last December to offer their contributions to reducing the carbon emissions that are heating the globe, and nearly 200 did. The U.S. offered a number of significant steps it would take, including increasing the efficiency of vehicles, but most especially limiting the amount of pollution from coal-fired electricity generation.
Twenty-four states, lead by West Virginia, challenged the Clean Power Plan, to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, saying that those emissions were not covered by the 1967 Clean Air Act, as amended in 1970, 1977 and 1990. The case went to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which expects to hear arguments beginning June 2.
The Circuit Court did not preclude the regulations going into effect until after the case was settled. The U.S. Supreme Court did, in a 5-4 ruling. Never before had the Supremes stayed a set of regulations before a federal court even heard the initial case, so the signal was clear: the conservative majority of the court, expecting the case to end up there, also expected to rule against the EPA.
Three days later, Feb. 13, Scalia died at his ranch in Shafter, Texas. The fate of the Clean Power Plan is among the many major policies effected. Without it the U.S. could not meet its Paris obligations, which could lead to the unraveling of the international effort to mitigate climate change.
It is unlikely the Supreme Court will remove the stay on the regulations; however, should the case come to the court, a 4-4 tie vote would leave standing the ruling of the Circuit Court, which most court-watchers believe will uphold the Clean Power Plan. While the plan has a better chance of surviving the judicial process now, the most likely way is for President Obama to fill the vacancy — which Republicans are determined to prevent.
Then the next president, possibly Republican, would get to appoint the justice. Aside from the judicial process, a Republican president and Congress could probably figure out ways to subvert the Paris Agreement legislatively and/or administratively, so the upcoming election is a defining moment. Since the Republican candidates do not accept climate science, it is not too much to say the survival of the planet's natural systems hangs in the balance.
On the other hand, many states, including the Northeast except for New Jersey, even some among those joining in the suit against the Clean Power Plan, are coming up with the actions the Plan requires, either because they believe it is the right thing to do or because they believe the plan will ultimately be upheld. Together with numerous cities, towns, corporations — and individuals — they are acting to reduce carbon emissions. The pendulum may be swinging.
Yet time itself is a crucial factor in mitigating climate change, and all of these processes are taking time to unroll.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.