Supreme Court limits the EPA’s ability to act on climate, extreme weather collapsing insurance markets, the value of natural infrastructure, record-breaking floods hit Bangladesh and Australia, indoor agriculture’s use of fossil fuels
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case West Virginia v. EPA, limited the ability of the federal government to require reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. While not preventing the EPA from regulating these emissions, the court constrained how the EPA could approach the problem, specifically preventing the agency from issuing a rule that would transform the entire electricity sector. Instead, the EPA must take a plant-by-plant approach and restrict emissions with devices such as scrubbers on smokestacks. Of course, the science dictates that such a sector-wide transformation is necessary to protect public health and safety. The New York Times describes how the court’s decision makes it almost mathematically impossible to meet the emissions-reduction goals the Biden Administration has announced.
The plaintiffs in the case, a group of Republican Attorneys General, were originally led by Scott Pruitt when he was AG of Oklahoma before becoming Trump’s first EPA Administrator (I know you hoped that we were done with him… at least he did get crushed in the Republican primary for Senate in Oklahoma). This group argued that Congress did not give the EPA explicit authority to take a sector-wide action, and therefore it should not be able to do so. The majority of the court agreed, embracing the “major questions” doctrine for the first time. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes that this “reversed almost 100 years of jurisprudence by arguing that Congress cannot delegate authority on ‘major questions’ to agencies in the executive branch,” and in a broader context signals “the end of the federal government as we know it.” The major-questions doctrine could be invoked to prevent federal government agencies from taking technically-nuanced action on any number of issues, all depending upon what the Supreme Court might decide is a “major question.” For a deep dive into the complexities of the decision, you can listen to the Volts podcast that interviews one of the attorneys supporting the EPA’s position (spoiler: even the attorney is not sure what the decision actually requires)…
the Arctic is warming quickly, early-season heat waves abound, flooding in Yellowstone, green aluminum, is creating fossil-fuel PR immoral?
Recent measurements have documented that a region of the Arctic is warming faster than any place on Earth. The Guardian reports on these temperature increases on the islands of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the Barents Sea. That the Arctic would warm more rapidly relative to the rest of the planet has been predicted since the 1970s, due mainly to ice (that reflects solar radiation) being replaced by water (that absorbs solar radiation). However, the heating appears to be happening faster than previously estimated. This will likely have significant impacts on weather outside of the Arctic as the historical temperature gradient between the tropics and the Arctic gets smaller.
Water availability is declining in the western U.S. through a combination of drought, population growth and lack of conservation (John Oliver has a nice primer on the problem). This reduction can be seen in Utah as the Great Salt Lake dwindles in size. The New York Times examines the implications of this change, which extends far beyond the loss of water itself. In particular, the exposed lake bed is becoming an air-quality hazard for the region, and there is no indication yet that the growth in water use that’s driving this problem is being addressed. A similar problem has already played out at Owens Lake east of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, which has resulted in the town of Keeler essentially being abandoned. An article in the Washington Post describes the potential for taps to go dry in the South African city of Gqeberha, due to climate change and inadequate water-system maintenance.
The Washington Post reports that the “immediate crises — among them war, spiking gas prices and an open-ended pandemic — are hindering the ability of leaders to take necessary action on the longer-term threats posed by climate change.” At our present rate of emissions, we will fly past the 1.5°C target by 2030. One leading climate scientist noted, “we know what we need to do, but we are not doing it yet.” An article in the New York Times describes the growing challenges facing countries in Asia due to climate change and extreme weather…
pandemic drives temporary drop in greenhouse-gas emissions, Trump’s legacy of climate damage, Biden elevates climate change to center of U.S. policy, enhancing the U.S. electrical grid, the largest solar power plant in U.S. history
The Washington Post reports that U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions will drop 9.2% in 2020, reaching their lowest level in at least three decades. This is due to the slowing of the economy because of the pandemic, with 14% of the drop attributed to reduced air travel (AP notes that the European Union is similarly expecting an 8% drop in emissions in 2020). Unfortunately, fully one-third of the reduction was offset by the emissions of carbon dioxide from forest fires. Emissions are expected to rebound in 2021, although it is expected that reductions in the electricity-production sector will continue to decline as renewable generation replaces coal and natural gas. This shows how difficult it will be to meet even the modest targets of the Paris Accord without a concerted effort by consumers and policy makers.
An op-ed in the New York Times argues that a Biden Administration can move aggressively to take action on climate change regardless of which party controls the U.S. Senate. While much more can be done with Senate support, throughout the campaign Biden has made it clear he believes that climate action is now a winning political issue. If he decides this issue will be an important determiner of his legacy as President, we may see the federal government take broad action on many fronts…