The Missing Voice for SCOTUS on Climate: Students

Students rally in favor of climate action at Tuft University in 2013.
Students rally in favor of climate action at Tuft University in 2013.

By Eban Goodstein

On Tuesday, in a surprise move, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed federal climate action for a year, and, perhaps, signaled intent to block power plant regulation altogether.

The backstory is this: Last December in Paris, the U.S. pledged to cut global warming pollution by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Along with new commitments from China and other major polluters, the Paris accord is a major step forward. Projected global warming this century has been cut from an unimaginable 8 degrees Fahrenheit, to a cooler — but still way too hot — 6 degrees.

Underlying the U.S. commitment is the 45-year-old Clean Air Act. This national law was given new legs in 2007 when the Supreme Court decided that, under Clean Air legislation, the EPA had both the authority and the responsibility to force industry to cut global warming pollution.

Eight years later, last August, the EPA finally issued regulations designed to reduce emissions from the power sector. The agency’s Clean Power Plan set a 2030 target for pollution reduction in every state. In Ohio, the goal is 37 percent, in Florida 26 percent, and in Arizona, 34 percent. So, until yesterday, in each state capitol a person at DEQ (or DEP or DEC) was charged to come up with a plan to meet the target.

Now, they are shutting down their spreadsheets. In an extraordinary move, the Supreme Court granted a stay that puts a halt to Clean Power Plan implementation until legal challenges to particular features of the plan are heard and settled, probably by SCOTUS itself later this year. The U.S. commitment made in Paris is now off the rails — at least temporarily. Some are interpreting the stay as a signal that the Court will force the EPA back to the drawing board on global warming pollution, a move that would fundamentally undermine the U.S. climate leadership that was so critical to the deal in Paris.

The Court heard from lawyers representing the perspectives of red states and blue states, coal and utility industry lobbyists, and Obama’s EPA. But there was one key stakeholder from whom the court did not hear, a group that did not get to present oral arguments: the young people who will actually be around in 2050 to experience the impacts of our action, or inaction, today.

Can students gain a voice to change their climate future? A key opportunity is the Power Dialog. The week of April 4, in more than 30 state capitols across the country, thousands of college and high-school students will meet in face-to-face dialogue with the officials who are in charge of planning pollution cuts in their states. Students will have a chance to learn about what their states are proposing — including the now-stalled Clean Power Plan — and to pose questions like:

  • What is the state target for renewable energy, and is it strong enough?
  • Will communities of color benefit from this policy, or will they be exposed to even more pollution?
  • Is our state going to gain jobs from solar, wind and energy efficiency?
  • Are we going to be “trade-ready”?
  • Would a price on carbon help meet the state goal?

The Power Dialog, sponsored by the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College, is not a lobbying or advocacy event. Instead, it is a unique educational opportunity for young people to experience first hand the process of climate policy formation, ask questions, and see how states can move forward at low cost to meet the Paris targets.

Five years from now, in 2020, the nations of the world are scheduled meet again to ratchet-up their pollution reduction goals, to try and hold the warming to a total of 3 or 4 degrees Fahrenheit. After yesterday’s decision, it is not clear that the U.S. will follow through on our existing commitments. And if we do not, then the Chinese will have no incentive to meet theirs. This is the moment that will determine if the Paris agreement was indeed historic, or if it will be only a forgotten stop on the road to a runaway global-warming future.

The Power Dialog is the best and biggest opportunity for young people to have a voice in the new rules being debated for climate protection. Learn how to get involved here.

Image credit: Flickr/James Ennis

Eban Goodstein is an economist and is Director of the MBA in Sustainability and the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

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