Continuing in its new role as an unvarnished extension of the Republican Party, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative bloc on Thursday eviscerated the ability of federal environmental officials to regulate carbon emissions. The court ruled by a now-familiar 6-3 majority that the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have the authority to nudge coal-fired power plants and other polluters toward more climate-friendly energy sources unless Congress specifically writes such policies into law.
That standard could undermine federal regulatory structures developed over more than 70 years, in areas far beyond environmental protection. Federal agencies also regulate, for example, the financial sector, highway safety standards and food inspection. Should members of Congress now start checking the math on every bank audit, reviewing every new bridge schematic, and signing off on each chicken-factory inspection?
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It’s always possible to find anecdotal evidence of regulation run amok. But the so-called regulatory state isn’t generally the tyranny of “unelected bureaucrats” that its critics claim it is.
It was an elected Congress that passed the Clean Air Act almost 60 years ago (and signed by a Republican president) and has updated it numerous times since. The act is directly on point regarding the goal of reducing emissions, which are a form of air pollution (obviously) — one that threatens the very future of the planet. As such, it is well within the EPA’s authority under that act to address emissions with regulations that couldn’t realistically be specified by Congress, which has neither the expertise nor resources to do so.
The EPA is ultimately answerable to the president, who is elected by the whole country — and whose election is a clear indication of public agreement with his policies. President Joe Biden campaigned on an explicit vow to aggressively confront the emissions that cause climate change, using an EPA already empowered by Congress to write and enforce regulations aimed at cleaner air. What part of this is “unelected”?
The court here blithely ignores the real-world impact of its ruling, as it’s apt to do lately. The conservative majority that overturned Roe v. Wade shrugged off as irrelevant the sudden loss of self-agency for women in red states like Missouri, which have already started imposing anti-choice laws that are truly draconian and are sure to become more so. A day earlier, the court’s majority scaled back the power of states to restrict firearms on their streets. The justices apparently deemed the crisis levels of gun violence currently facing millions of city-dwellers to be as irrelevant as the deeply personal desperation now facing millions of women.
And now, with similar disregard for the havoc it will wreak, the court removes the most viable path to confronting climate change — a goal implicit in the concept of environmental protection that American voters have legitimized for generations. The real unelected tyranny these days is coming from a handful of ideologues in black robes.