Why the West Virginia v. EPA Ruling Matters for U.S. Climate Leadership | Opinion

Shortly after delegates from more than 100 countries gathered in Germany for a climate change conference, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that could ironically jeopardize the future of the U.S.' global climate leadership.

The court's decision on West Virginia v. EPA, which takes a bite out of the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, sparked swift reactions from climate conscious politicians and activists. President Joe Biden issued a statement decrying the consequences for public health, suggesting the ruling was aligned with "a long-term campaign to strip away our right to breathe clean air."

That is true. But what's been largely missing from the reactionary discourse is a sense of the ruling's global implications. By thwarting how effectively the U.S. will be able to curb emissions on its own soil, the ruling may place the U.S. in a weaker posture for critical upcoming climate negotiations.

It's difficult to overstate the role that the U.S. plays—as a tone-setter, arbiter, and steerer—on the world stage of climate affairs. Of course, part of this influence stems from the U.S.' outsized contributions toward driving climate change in the first place. As one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. has to throw its weight behind international climate agreements for them to ultimately be effectual.

But the other part of the U.S.' influence in steering global climate affairs is more intangible, rooted in perceptions of how much the U.S. is invested in the climate fight.

While participating in last year's United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, I was struck by how much tacit authority and reverence Biden's special envoy for climate John Kerry appeared to command.

During periods of disagreement, delegates from different countries would assemble into "huddles" on the conference's main floor—and almost always around Kerry. In one particularly tense moment, when India and China reneged on a measure to phase out coal, Kerry quickly became referee.

Kerry and the U.S.' prominent role in steering the direction of the conference was widely recognized and greeted as a welcome respite from the Trump-era hostility to climate action.

Fast-forward to today and the world is still looking at the U.S. to make good on its climate promises. The Supreme Court's disastrous West Virginia v. EPA ruling, which comes in the run-up to this year's U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP27), has dismayed stakeholders across the globe and may bode poorly for future negotiations.

Saleemul Huq, a key advisor to the Least Developed Countries group at the COP conferences, told The Guardian that the ruling "flies in the face of established science and will set back the US's commitment to keep global temperature below 1.5C."

A view of smoke stack
A view of the smoke stack of the 47-year-old Cheswick coal-fired power plant Oct. 26, 2017, in Springdale, Pa. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

A perceived setback in the U.S.' commitment to this effort, which Kerry previously pressed for all countries to adopt, spells bad news on multiple fronts.

First, it means that the buzz around Biden ushering in a new era for climate action could feel hollow. At COP26, Biden apologized for the damage that former President Donald Trump inflicted on the climate movement and assured the world that the U.S. would be "not only back at the table, but hopefully leading by the power of our example." With the Supreme Court now clipping the EPA's wings, this example might be less than sterling.

Second, the U.S. has historically played a role in convening other top emitters around the table—a position where it could now find itself with less leverage. Last year, Kerry embarked on the first official visit by a senior member of the Biden administration to China. The main item on the docket? Coal, which China consumes at its highest rate in a decade and which envelops communities in pollutants that are detrimental to public health. Kerry's push to get China to reduce its reliance on coal might be met with even greater resistance now that more Americans will also see their communities suffocating under toxic emissions.

In spite of West Virginia v. EPA, Congress could still pass sweeping reforms to salvage Biden's climate agenda and put the U.S. back on the climate leaderboard. But, with Congress effectively at an impasse, the chances we'll see such momentum look slim to none.

Instead, what we'll likely see is the Supreme Court decision giving way to increasingly laxer standards that belie vigorous climate action. And it will have devastating consequences for years to come.

Henna Hundal is a public policy specialist and a researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.