While the reasons I haven’t updated this blog for a week are complex and multifaceted, the fact that I’ve been flying to another university every 2-3 days, waking up at 7 (AM, not PM) each morning, defending quantum computing research all day including mealtimes, and collapsing in my hotel room during rare free intervals is undoubtedly one of the contributing factors.
And so it is, alas, that I don’t have time to share anything nontrivial today. Instead, in honor of Earth Day, I’ll just link to the text of the landmark US Supreme Court ruling three weeks ago, which forced Bush’s emasculated EPA to either regulate CO2 emissions or else give scientific reasons for refusing to do so. If you the time (and who doesn’t?), I’d also recommend reading the oral arguments, wherein you can enjoy the acidic barbs of Justice Scalia, surely one of the most interesting and articulate assholes of our time.
As with intelligent design cases, it’s not the science that’s on trial here but rather the legal system itself. Is a system set up to decide which farmer was grazing his cows on which other farmer’s land capable of weighing the origin and future of eukaryotic life on Earth? In this particular case, the legal system eked out a 5-4 victory; it could easily have gone the other way.
And yes, I know that Massachusetts v. EPA wasn’t “really” about global warming: it was about whether Massachusetts had standing to sue, the definition of the word “pollutant” in the Clear Air Act, whether the EPA can decline to regulate based on foreign-policy considerations, and so on. Similarly, Plessy v. Ferguson wasn’t “really” about racism, Griswold v. Connecticut wasn’t “really” about contraception, etc. In each case, it was just a happy coincidence, p≈1/512, that all nine justices found that the legal technicalities lined up perfectly with how they felt about the underlying issue.
For those who don’t want to read the whole decision, here are a few key passages:
When a State enters the Union, it surrenders certain sovereign prerogatives. Massachusetts cannot invade Rhode Island to force reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it cannot negotiate an emissions treaty with China or India … These sovereign prerogatives are now lodged in the Federal Government, and Congress has ordered EPA to protect Massachusetts (among others) by prescribing standards applicable to the “emission of any air pollutant… which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”
The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized … That these climate-change risks are “widely shared” does not minimize Massachusetts’ interest in the outcome of this litigation … According to petitioners’ unchallenged affidavits, global sea levels rose somewhere between 10 and 20 centimeters over the 20th century as a result of global warming … These rising seas have already begun to swallow Massachusetts’ coastal land … The severity of that injury will only increase over the course of the next century: If sea levels continue to rise as predicted, one Massachusetts official believes that a significant fraction of coastal property will be “either permanently lost through inundation or temporarily lost through periodic storm surge and flooding events.”
EPA does not dispute the existence of a causal connection between man-made greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. At a minimum, therefore, EPA’s refusal to regulate such emissions “contributes” to Massachusetts’ injuries. EPA nevertheless maintains that its decision not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles contributes so insignificantly to petitioners’ injuries that the agency cannot be haled into federal court to answer for them … But EPA overstates its case. Its argument rests on the erroneous assumption that a small incremental step, because it is incremental, can never be attacked in a federal judicial forum. Yet accepting that premise would doom most challenges to regulatory action.
Unlike EPA, we have no difficulty reconciling Congress’ various efforts to promote interagency collaboration and research to better understand climate change with the agency’s pre-existing mandate to regulate “any air pollutant” that may endanger the public welfare … Collaboration and research do not conflict with any thoughtful regulatory effort; they complement it.
EPA no doubt has significant latitude as to the manner, timing, content, and coordination of its regulations with those of other agencies. But once EPA has responded to a petition for rulemaking, its reasons for action or inaction must conform to the authorizing statute. Under the clear terms of the Clean Air Act, EPA can avoid taking further action only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do … To the extent that this constrains agency discretion to pursue other priorities of the Administrator or the President, this is the congressional design.
EPA has refused to comply with this clear statutory command. Instead, it has offered a laundry list of reasons not to regulate. For example, EPA said that a number of voluntary executive branch programs already provide an effective response to the threat of global warming … that regulating greenhouse gases might impair the President’s ability to negotiate with “key developing nations” to reduce emissions … and that curtailing motor-vehicle emissions would reflect “an inefficient, piecemeal approach to address the climate change issue” …
Although we have neither the expertise nor the authority to evaluate these policy judgments, it is evident they have nothing to do with whether greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change. Still less do they amount to a reasoned justification for declining to form a scientific judgment. In particular, while the President has broad authority in foreign affairs, that authority does not extend to the refusal to execute domestic laws.
Nor can EPA avoid its statutory obligation by noting the uncertainty surrounding various features of climate change and concluding that it would therefore be better not to regulate at this time. … If the scientific uncertainty is so profound that it precludes EPA from making a reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, EPA must say so.
In short, EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change. Its action was therefore “arbitrary, capricious, … or otherwise not in accordance with law.”