Illustration by Tom Bachtell April 10, 2017 Issue
He said that his order puts “an end to the war on coal.” In reality, it’s a war on basic knowledge of the harm that coal can do.
By Amy Davidson
In late 2006, President George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency argued before the Supreme Court that it did not want to regulate greenhouse gases, and that no one could make it do so. It certainly had no wish to accede to the desires of Massachusetts, which, with eleven other states, had sued the E.P.A. for failing to establish guidelines on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons. The states pointed to the agency’s charter, under the Clean Air Act, which instructs it to regulate chemicals released into the air “which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” They asked why the E.P.A., which had refused even to consider whether greenhouse gases fell into that category, thought that it could ignore the law.
The Court, in a landmark 5–4 decision, written by Justice John Paul Stevens and issued ten years ago this week, agreed with the states. As a result of that ruling, the E.P.A. began the formal process of looking at the science documenting the risks posed by greenhouse gases, and recognized that those emissions had contributed to a public-safety crisis affecting not just the nation but the planet. The E.P.A.’s resulting “endangerment finding,” as it is known, was issued in 2009, in time for Barack Obama’s Presidency. It became the immediate object of conservative scorn and of furious efforts in Congress and the courts to invalidate it, but it held up, and formed the basis for new standards on auto emissions and for Obama’s Clean Power Plan, issued in 2015. More than that, the finding was an assertion of the principle that politicians cannot entirely ignore either science or the rule of law.
We now have, in Donald J. Trump, a President who shows disdain for both. Trump’s lack of interest in climate change as anything other than fodder for conspiracy theories involving Chinese hoaxers reached its fullest expression last week, in a “Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.” The order asks every agency of the federal government to review its rules and to purge them of measures that inconvenience the fossil-fuel and nuclear-power industries. In particular, it directs the E.P.A. to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, which had called for, among other things, the replacement of old and dirty coal-burning plants. The plan would, it was projected, result in eight hundred and seventy million fewer tons of carbon pollution released into the atmosphere, as many as thirty-six hundred fewer premature deaths in the United States between now and 2030, and ninety thousand fewer asthma attacks in children.