A new climate
The U.S. Supreme Court decision on global warming unlocks the door that was blocking efforts to curb auto emissions that constitute about one quarter of the greenhouse gases produced in the United States.
The Bush administration's refusal to address the problem of climate change stands as one of its greatest policy mistakes. It has been President Bush's position that the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not have the legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide produced by auto engines and that even if it did, it would not do so.
A dissenting opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts held that Massachusetts and the other plaintiffs in the case against the EPA did not have standing to sue. The test for standing requires plaintiffs to show that they have suffered a "concrete and particularized injury" that is traceable to the defendant and that a favorable court decision would be likely to redress their grievance.
Massachusetts argued that climate change imperils its coastlines. The dissenting minority of justices was not persuaded that this injury could be traced clearly enough to inaction by the EPA. Meanwhile, the world has been clamoring for the United States to take action on global warming because of changes already visible that threaten whole nations.
Meanwhile, numerous states, including Vermont, have followed California's lead in enacting their own restrictions on tailpipe emissions. States adopting the California standards plan to impose carbon emission limits on vehicles from the 2009 model year. The auto industry responded by filing suit, saying the states did not have the authority to impose limits. The case is now before U.S. District Court in Burlington, where a hearing was scheduled for Wednesday to discuss the impact of the Supreme Court ruling.
It is not clear what effect the Supreme Court ruling will have on the cases involving Vermont, California and other states. The auto industry has argued that the states, like the EPA, do not have the authority to regulate auto emissions. But the Supreme Court ruling, which recognized the peril of climate change and the connection with auto emissions, has dealt a grievous blow to that position.
One effect of the court ruling is to demonstrate the importance of swift, decisive, and comprehensive action at the federal level curbing carbon dioxide. Auto dealers do not want to be subject to a patchwork of differing state regulations. It will be up to Congress to impose tough new gas mileage standards, forcing the auto industry to become part of the solution to this problem. Some major corporations, including power companies, have already been pressing the federal government to adopt greenhouse gas standards, knowing that predictability and uniformity are good for business. Oil and auto companies are also beginning to recognize the inevitable.
Vermont's willingness to adopt the California standards and to become part of a regional effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions puts the state on the right track. The Vermont Legislature is working on legislation that would reduce emissions in the home heating and transportation sectors. It is all part of an emerging global awareness that continued inaction represents an unconscionable abdication of responsibility. Future generations may look at the court ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA as an important turning point.