• Eirini Sampson

The US Supreme Court's Right-Wing Bender: West Virginia v EPA

The latest update from the US Supreme Court’s conservative bender, has been its 6-to-3 decision in West Virginia v EPA where the court ruled that the agency overstepped its authority with rules to cut plants’ planet-warming pollution, in an attempt to curb the federal government’s ability to tackle the climate crisis.


(Fred Schilling/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States/Washington Post illustration)

While a lot of mainstream media outlets called this a blow to the Biden administration, this is an oversimplification of the impact that such can have on the fight against climate change. The US emits 14.02% of global emissions, ranking as the second largest CO2 emitter after China, while it ranks first in terms of per capita emissions.


West Virginia v EPA is one of the largest climate change cases to come to the US Supreme Court in over 10 years. When the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, it established the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in charge of tackling air pollution, which it does in part by addressing industrial greenhouse gas emissions, which account for 25% of total US Emissions. In 2015, the Obama administration introduced the Clean Power Plan to target these emissions, which enabled the EPA to regulate emissions through the CAA, enforcing a shift to renewables. In response to this, Republican attorneys general from coal-producing states sued EPA, arguing that it overstepped its authority. The decision leaves the decision-making authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to Congress, eroding federal power to combat the climate crisis.


The Trump-era remnants of anti-climate change action, have sent shockwaves globally. The UN warned that the ruling could delay internationally agreed-upon climate goals, reminding many of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The US’ role as a major emitting economy seems to have been ignored in the Court’s ruling, while the fact that emissions do not see borders, is also another factor that leads me to believe that the US’ polarised and inexistent checks and balances mechanisms are now only acting on hate politics and nothing really premised on logic. Climate change is absolutely not a political debate, and the Supreme Court’s decision has the potential to fetter the sovereign power of the federal government to enter into legally binding conventions tackling climate change; therefore, ultimately excluding one of the largest economies and global emitters, all of which is premised on anything but scientific knowledge. Indeed, the US Supreme Court is now facing a legitimacy crisis. Apart from the right-wing majority’s questionable legal reasoning cloaking the right-wing cultural identity. The politicised nature of the justices’ confirmation process has led to the majority of right-wing judges being appointed by presidents who did not win the popular vote in the US elections. The legitimacy of the judicial branch comes from its duty to uphold the rule of law, something that the Court’s current bender impedes as it is tainted by politicised right-wing culture that is already further driving a dividing line in the US.


No, it is not a blow to the Biden administration. It is a blow to scientists who have continually through their work shown the detrimental effects of climate change for individuals, communities and nations alike. The decision means that EPA cannot impose transformative climate policies that are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This also ignores the major healthcare crises that already exist and will be created as a result of air pollution, which prompted the enactment of the Clean Air Act in the first place in 1963.


“First, members of Congress often don’t know enough – and know they don’t know enough – to regulate sensibly on an issue. Of course, members can and do provide overall direction. But then they rely, as all of us rely in our daily lives, on people with greater expertise and experience. Those people are found in agencies,” wrote Elena Kagan in her dissent.

The decision further ignores the historical responsibility of the US and other developed nations in a globalised environment where climate change and pollution are a-national. The American-centric perspective reiterates the isolationist approach that divides the US today.