West Virginia v. EPA: Supreme Court Attacks Life on Earth, Again

Image credit: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, in the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, the Supreme Court ripped the fundamental human right of abortion away from millions of people throughout the United States. Yesterday, in West Virginia v. EPA, it limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce the Clean Air Act. It did this by removing the power of the EPA to enforce regulations not explicitly approved by Congress; regulations which were already not nearly enough to protect our environment from the destruction caused by the capitalist pursuit of profit.

Yesterday’s ruling strikes down the EPA’s ability to force power plants to either reduce their carbon emissions or fund a shift to renewable energy. To have this authority, according to the ruling, the EPA must have “clear congressional authorization” for any actions that it takes. This despite the fact that the Clean Air Act, which was passed in Congress, explicitly empowers the EPA to devise the “best system of emission reduction.” This means that at least for the next few years, during an environmental turning point for our Earth and all of humanity, the EPA has lost much of its power to regulate or limit the emissions of carbon into the atmosphere.

Given that we know rising carbon dioxide is a leading driver of climate change, this is a clear attack on our future. Already the U.S. was failing to reach Biden’s climate targets to halve its emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Hindering the EPA’s ability to regulate power plant emissions directly contradicts these goals. Now is the time to use every tool we can in the fight to save our planet, not relax restrictions on big polluters.

In addition to contributing to the existential threat of climate change, failing to moderate power plant emissions will also have direct effects on the communities where such plants are located. Poor air quality in these areas can lead to asthma, lung cancer, and other diseases, making this decision not only an attack on the environment but a public health disaster.

This ruling also has implications for other government bureaucracies that are generally hated by many right-wing conservatives. For example, what if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) crafts new rules to limit the chemicals that factory workers or miners breathe while on the job? If the Supreme Court follows the logic it just laid out in the West Virginia ruling, it could also say that OSHA cannot create or implement new safety standards without “clear congressional authorization.” What will happen when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) actually tries to prosecute a one-percenter for insider trading? Potentially, this ruling and similar ones to follow will make it literally impossible for government agencies to do exactly what they were created to do.

Just like in the Dobbs ruling, the West Virginia ruling is a case study in how the well-financed reactionary right wing has organized itself to dominate our lives, and how the Supreme Court and entire judiciary are dominated by the same One Percent who run the rest of our political-economic system. For decades, billionaire capitalists, from the infamous Koch family to the Mellon family to Chevron and other major oil and coal companies, have spent tens of millions financing the careers of politicians who fight so-called “burdensome” regulations that keep them from enriching themselves even further. These politicians then nominate and confirm judges and justices who are friendly to their interests. But these same one-percenters also finance numerous right-wing legal advocacy groups like the Federalist Society, the Judicial Crisis Network, the Concord Fund, and CRC Advisors, which not only groom right-wing justices, but also sue the government whenever and wherever they can.

Over the decades, starting in the 1980s and culminating in Trump’s appointment of nearly 200 judges and justices promoted by these organizations, these groups have worked together in what one former Justice Department official and critic called a “pincer movement” in which “they are teeing up the attorneys to bring the litigation before the same judges that they handpicked.” In other words, these networks of money have shaped the political system and both sides of the legal system to guarantee that for decades to come they will dominate not only U.S. courts, but many other elements of the state and our society as well.

Some might want to look back with longing at a time when so-called liberal justices appointed by the Democrats were more influential in the courts. And, of course, past periods might look better compared with the cruel and blatantly undemocratic rulings being handed down these past weeks. But in many earlier Supreme Court cases and in many earlier moments of political progress, it was not the party affiliation of the politicians in question that mattered. What mattered most was the popular upsurge forcing politicians to take action, or forcefully telling Supreme Court Justices how they should vote to avoid an even greater upsurge.

Roe v. Wade was decided while a Republican was in the White House and with a court divided between Republican and Democratic nominees. The decision was made under pressure from a large and growing women’s movement that had been active for more than a decade. The existence of the Environmental Protection Agency was actually signed into law by a Republican president, but only two months after millions of people marched in the first ever Earth Day celebrations, and after nearly a decade of organizing by millions for the protection of the environment.

The Supreme Court today fears no retribution for its actions. There aren’t millions marching in the United States for women’s reproductive rights, nor are there millions marching to stop carbon emissions… yet. The six reactionary Justices know this. Whether it’s the right to make decisions about our own bodies, or the right to stop the One Percent from destroying life on our planet, we are the only ones who will turn this around and defend ourselves.