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How Antonin Scalia's Death May Affect the Paris Climate Accord

Scalia's death means that the Supreme Court is left with eight remaining judges. In the case of a tie vote, the decision from a lower court is upheld with some restrictions. A tie vote on the Clean Power Plan may be good news for the environment.
February 16, 2016, 11am PST | Irvin Dawid
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"The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia [on Feb. 13] will have countless political and policy ramifications," writes Brad Plumer, senior editor of Vox. "But here's a big one: President Obama's plan to tackle global warming is in considerably less legal peril than it was just three days ago."

In a 5-4 decision on Feb. 9, the Supreme Court put 'on hold' the Clean Power Plan rule, the most significant carbon-reducing measure of the Obama Administration. The decision was unprecedented, because the case had not even be heard yet by the lower federal court.

The Court hasn't yet decided on the rule's legality, but the stay suggested that the five conservative justices — Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Kennedy — were inclined to strike it down. Analysts fretted that doing so could, in turn, cause the international climate deal forged at Paris to unravel.

In that international agreement (note, not a treaty) known as COP21, 195 nations pledged to make significant cuts in emissions. The Clean Power Plan, which places limits on all existing power plants, particularly those powered by coal, was the basis of Obama's pledge, who signed the accord on behalf of the United States.

Should the United States, the second largest emitter after China, be unable to meet its pledge to reduce emissions by 26-26 percent by 2030, which it may be able to do without reducing emissions from coal power plants, the largest single source of emissions, other high-emitting nations may break their commitments as well.

Clean Power Plan's survival now rests with US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit

"Twenty-seven states and countless industry groups filed more than 15 separate cases against the rule," according to an E&E factsheet on the case. "The lawsuits have been consolidated into one case at the D.C. Circuit."

"That case is being heard by a three-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court," writes Plumer. "Oral arguments begin June 2. A decision is expected by fall."

And the good news for the environment is that "(t)he Obama administration looks likely to prevail in this arena," adds Plumer, though by no means is it a certainty.

Irrespective of any type of judicial ruling on the Clean Power Plan, a Republican president in 2017 "could just scuttle the rule, either through administrative actions or by legislation," writes Plumer. And with the stroke of a pen, he could also retract Obama's signature on the international climate accord.

Hat tip to Loren Spiekerman.

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Published on Sunday, February 14, 2016 in Vox
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