The courts are emerging as a powerful tool to drive climate action and protect the environment. US courts have been maligned for a number of questionable rulings not the least of which is Citizens United which increases the power of corporations and gives them unlimited authority to influence electoral outcomes through campaign spending. In 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that the Obama adminstration should have considered the compliance costs when crafting clean air regulations.
However, US courts have also done some good things in defense of the environment. Most recently they blocked an attempt to kill the Obama administration’s regulations that limit mercury and other toxic pollutants.
In April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule which is a critical clean air standard that will protect the health of Americans across 28 Eastern states. It limits the amount of pollution that can flow across state boundaries. The ruling protected the EPA’s interpretation of the Good Neighbor Provision [of the Clean Air Act]. (page 32 of the decision). Only Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. The rule specifically reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants across 28 eastern states.
In January, 2016 the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) demand response rule, which was created in 2011 and orders utilities to compensate consumers for reducing their use during peak hours. This ruling supports renewable energy and efficiency during peak periods and as such combats climate change.
More than 20 energy companies, other businesses and industry organizations, along with 27 states, filed lawsuits to block the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The DC Circuit Court unanimously rejected requests for a stay in December intended to shelve carbon emission regulations. This effectively gave a green light for the regulations. The death of Justice Scalia was a blessing for climate action as it gave the Supreme Court the numbers needed to reject attempts to block the air pollution rule in April.
On June 13th, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an effort by a group of states led by Michigan to block the regulations. By removing harmful pollution from the air these regulations will save thousands of lives each year and prevent developmental delays in children. This is the second time this year the Supreme Court has refused to hear arguments to put the regulations on hold.
Court rulings have also helped to offset Republican attempts to interfere with voting maps through a process known as redistricting. In February three federal judges threw out the congressional voting maps the Republican-led General Assembly drew five years ago, ruling that two districts were gerrymandered along racial lines.
The courts are emerging as an important route for citizens to pressure their governments into acting on climate change. In the US, an environmental law nonprofit “Our Children’s Trust” and 21 young people successfully sued the federal government demanding that they do more to combat climate change.
On April 29, 2016 a Washington state ruling in the critical climate case brought by youths against the state’s Department of Ecology, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill ordered the Department of Ecology to promulgate an emissions reduction rule by the end of 2016 and make recommendations to the state legislature on science-based greenhouse gas reductions in the 2017 legislative session.
Similar cases are pending before other U.S. courts in the federal district court in Oregon and in the state courts of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon.
Citizens in other countries are also using the Similar lawsuits have also succeeded in Pakistan and another is pending in New Zealand. These legal challenges can force governments to take stronger action to fight climate change. A farmer in Peru has also sued a giant German energy utility for contributing to global warming.