In a stunning blow to environmental protections, the U.S. Supreme Court declared on June 30 that the Clean Air Act does not, in fact, give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate emissions from U.S. power plants. The vote, which was 6-3 with conservative justices leading the majority, was a win for the business sector and a major loss for environmental advocates across the globe.
To get a better handle on what just happened and why it matters, we spoke with Bill McKibben, a longtime environmentalist and reporter who’s spent the majority of his career chasing the science on global warming. He gives us the scoop.
I know many environmentalists and policy makers are still digesting this new Supreme Court decision. Still, with that in mind, what just happened?
Bill McKibben: The Court essentially prevented the EPA from limiting power plant emissions to fight climate change—and in a broader sense, suggested that Congress, not the EPA, should have to put forward specific regulations, instead of general plans like “clean the air.” For those who pay attention to American politics, the idea of Congress doing detailed work of this kind is absurd.
How does this new ruling affect the EPA’s current influence? Is this solely handcuffing the EPA when the power sector is involved, or do you think it will have broader implications for things like transportation or industry as a whole?
I think it’s pretty clear they intend to use it as a template for other kinds of regulation—and they potentially have some cases next year that could even prevent states from making their own regulations about things like gas mileage. (This is the one that has me most worried.)
How much do emissions from power plants, which were at the heart of this Supreme Court ruling, influence global warming?
A lot—America is the second biggest greenhouse gas emitter (and by far the largest historically, which is what counts since all that carbon is still up there in the atmosphere warming the earth). And power plants are a major source of our carbon.
Editor’s note: Electricity generation from power plants accounted for 25% of all U.S. carbon emissions in 2020, according to the EPA.
You’ve been researching and reporting on global warming for decades. When the Clean Air Act during the Obama era was first introduced, what were your impressions?
Well, the Clean Air Act, in its modern form, actually dates from 1970. It’s an interesting history—it came within months of the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans, ten percent of the then-population, took to the streets. As a result, Richard Nixon, who cared not a fig for the environment, was forced to sign both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and the Endangered Species Act, and in fact create the EPA itself.
Interestingly, pretty much all these recent and rancid Supreme Court opinions took aim at laws from that same short era—Roe in 1973, but also the gun control act of 1968, and the voting rights act of 1965. There’s been a 50 year right wing project to get rid of the hopeful liberations of the 60s and 70s; we at Third Act, which is progressive organizing for people over 60, are committed to defending those gains.
And to follow that, did you feel that the EPA’s reach as a result of the Clean Air Act was making a difference?
Not enough of one, since the temperature keeps rising!
To you, what does this indicate about the current Supreme Court?
As I said above, they’re on a decades-old vendetta to overturn a country committed to the common good, and convert it to a nation where only individuals matter, and rich individuals matter most.
Where do we go from here?
We organize. The interesting thing about all these Supreme Court opinions is that they’re massively unpopular. If we become the backlash, we can make big strides in reorienting American politics. There’s some opportunity amidst this pain, but only if we seize it.
How can the layperson get involved? Where can they make the biggest difference?
If you’re under 30, join the Sunrise Movement. If you’ve over 60, join us at Third Act . If you’re in between find someone to throw down with. We can’t solve this thing one Tesla at a time—the most important thing an individual can do is be a bit less of an individual!
Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement. He also founded Third Act.
Madeleine LaPlante-Dube is Orion’s Digital Strategist. She is a journalist and strategy nerd with a background in audience development. A lover of all things outdoors, she comes to Orion from Outside magazine and the Sun Journal, an award-winning community paper in Lewiston, Maine.