With the Supreme Court issuing its decision in West Virginia v. EPA, the judicial branch has removed a key policy tool from the federal executive branch to address climate change. The court decided that the Clean Air Act does not authorize EPA to require existing fossil-fuel-fired power plants to transition to zero-carbon methods of producing electricity.

According to Chief Justice Roberts, this was an “extraordinary” circumstance where Congress would have to “speak clearly” (rather than broadly) to authorize EPA action. Such an unusually specific mandate from Congress is necessary, Roberts wrote, because the way our nation generates power is an issue of “vast economic and political significance.” After the court’s decision – and without further congressional action – there is very little the EPA can do to control how much carbon U.S. electricity production pumps into the air and even less the agency can do to speed up our transition to clean energy.

The most authoritative studies of climate change at both the national and international level have characterized the enormity of the challenge before humanity. And the message has been consistently clear: If we are to avoid increasingly worse impacts from climate change, we no longer have the luxury of removing tools from our toolbox. We need action at all levels of government, from all major greenhouse gas emitters.

In deciding that EPA does not have the authority to require our nation to shift away from fossil-fuel energy production (e.g., coal- and gas-fired power plants) – the second highest cause of warming pollution in America behind transportation – the court has taken the most important tool out of the toolbox. Decarbonization of the energy sector will now be slower and entirely dependent on market forces, if it ever comes to pass. The court has effectively relegated responsibility for mitigating the causes of climate change to smaller emitters, who contribute less to the problem and often have fewer resources to implement the needed change.

Moreover, once again, we see “climate inaction” at the federal level – this time through the judicial branch – shifting the onus of the climate burden onto future generations, despite study after study concluding that it costs a lot more to respond to climate impacts decades in the future than it does to address the causes of climate change now.

According to EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which compiles data from major “facility-level” sources of greenhouse gas emissions across the country, Maine ranks 48th in the country in terms of the contributions from these major emitters to the national total. The majority of Maine’s emissions come from transportation and, to a lesser degree, residential and commercial buildings – which is why clean-powered electrification of vehicles and energy efficiency measures are so important at reducing our state’s emissions. The court’s ruling effectively shifts more of the burden for tackling climate change into states like ours.

But there is some good news. We currently have a state government, scores of municipalities, and a plethora of socially responsible businesses that are living up to the state’s motto: Dirigo. Maine Won’t Wait, the state’s ambitious climate action plan, lays out a framework for all Mainers to act. We see the economic opportunity in responding to climate change. We accept the moral responsibility we have to act now.

We will rise to the occasion and demonstrate that not only can we meet the challenge before us – ensuring Mainers continue to thrive for generations to come – but we will serve as a national model for doing so.

— Special to the Press Herald

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