The Providence Journal (R.I.), Feb. 20:

In an unusual move this month, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a central piece of President Obama’s initiative to combat climate change. The 5-to-4 vote halted implementation of the Clean Power Plan, aimed at restraining greenhouse gas emissions from electricity producers, until all legal challenges against it could be heard. However, the unexpected death this past weekend of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has thrown the decision into doubt.

The Clean Power Plan is at the heart of a broad administration effort to address climate change in the United States. At last December’s climate-change summit in Paris, the president used it to set an example, and help convince other nations to pledge action. Overwhelmingly they did so, in a historic global accord that hinges largely on trust.

Back in the United States, some two dozen states sued to block the president’s plan, arguing that the Environmental Protection Agency has overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act. The EPA has taken aim, in particular, at coalfired power plants, a major source of carbon emissions. By pledging to limit U.S. coal burning, Mr. Obama was able to get India and China, both significant coal users, to go along with the Paris accord.

What made the Supreme Court’s action surprising is that the high court does not usually intervene in a case before a lower court has ruled. In January, a unanimous panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, had refused to stop the Clean Power Plan from proceeding.

It set up an expedited schedule so that the case could be heard by the full appellate court in early June. That left the Supreme Court with little reason to jump the gun, yet it did so anyway. Justice Scalia was in the five-member majority that approved the stay.

Should the D.C. circuit court uphold the EPA regulations, as many expect it to do, routine appeals would send the case on to the Supreme Court. In that event, a tied 4-to-4 ruling from the high court would leave the circuit court’s ruling intact. Implementation of the Clean Power Plan could proceed. Alternatively, the court could wait, and re-hear the case with a new ninth member.

Unfortunately, Congress has shown no will to pass the kind of restrictions President Obama mandated through regulation. Past court rulings suggest that the president has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases, but confusions within the law leave room for doubt. Though the chances of succeeding seem discouragingly remote, environmentalists should keep trying to make a case to the American people for action through law.

Delay, of course, has a cost, leaving less time to mitigate the worst effects of pollution here at home. Moreover, if the United States fails to honor its Paris commitment, other nations will have an excellent excuse to bow out as well. The global climate-change agreement could disintegrate. The survival of this historic accord – vital to blunt the dangers of greenhouse gases – could well depend on who is elected president in November.