For climate change, judicial action might be key

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • November 13, 2014

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The environmental ignorance prevalent in the Republican party makes legislative inroads toward positive changes unlikely.
The environmental ignorance prevalent in the Republican party makes legislative inroads toward positive changes unlikely.

Now that Republicans have secured a majority in the Senate, and James Inhofe—the Republican senator from Oklahoma who is among the party’s most impassioned climate change deniers—is likely to regain control of the Environment and Public Works Committee, one thing has become clear: for the time being, with the Republican stronghold in Congress, it’s time for politicians to give up on climate change.

On second thought, I take that back. Instead, it’s time for us—or at least those of us who are environmentally conscious voters that believe in the existence of climate change and its human origin—to give up on hoping these newly elected politicians will pass any consequential, enduring, and progressive environmental legislation.

Despite the fact that a Republican president proposed the Environmental Protection Agency—Richard Nixon, in 1970, according to the agency’s website—today’s GOP has actively remained ignorant of not only the pressing needs of environmental reform but also the climate science that calls for action. A recent episode of The Colbert Report addressed the utter absurdity of the standard Republican politician preface when drawing conclusions unsupported by data or findings from climate change experts. “Yes, everyone who denies man-made climate change has the same stirring message,” said Stephen Colbert. “We don’t know what the f**k we’re talking about!”

This blatant disregard for science and reason has become the party’s standard environmental policy. Not only has Inhofe spent the last 20 years denying climate change—time spent, in part, writing and publishing The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future—but in his first term as the Senate environmental committee’s chair, he summoned a popular science fiction writer to testify before the committee on matters of scientific evidence. Indeed, in September 2005, Michael Crichton, the novelist and screenwriter responsible for Jurassic Park and ER, gave Senate testimony based on his research into the politicization of environmental science for an 816-page paperback scientific thriller that now sells for less than $10 on Amazon.

The same ignorance extends to Republicans at the top of the party’s leadership: just after his re-election, Mitch McConnell, who is likely to be the Senate majority leader, identified the environment as a topic central to his agenda. “The senator said his top priority is ‘to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in,’” reported Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader last week.

With the combined powers and agendas of McConnell and Inhofe alone, the likelihood of legislation based on science and reason to address environmental concerns is slim to none.

Fortunately, not every branch of the government insists on denying science. In June, the Supreme Court upheld Obama administration efforts to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. “The Supreme Court’s decision is a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources,” said the Agency in a statement. Two months before the Court also decided in favor of the EPA, holding that the agency had the authority to regulate coal pollution that drifts across state boundaries.

The opportunities for judicial action to protect the environment also extend beyond the Supreme Court. In October, the Ithaca Journal reported that the small rural town of Dryden, the high court of New York upheld the town’s 2011 ban on fracking. “In a precedent-setting decision last June,” reported the Journal, “the Court of Appeals ruled 5-2 that communities have the right to use local land-use authority to prohibit oil and gas operations within their borders.”

This historically progressive judicial activism of the Supreme Court on social issues—school desegregation in the 1950s, abortion rights in the 1970s, gay marriage recently—is a valid (albeit risky) course of action to pin your environmentally conscious hopes on. A more realistic prospect might instead be the Court’s most conservative justices continuing to rule in favor of expanding the powers of the EPA to effectively regulate the government, a worthy short term option until congressional power changes hands.

Perhaps Inhofe was onto something when he complained about the politicization of environmental science. Though it might happen more often in his party than the opposition’s, it happens. Until the legislative future of climate change is out of the Oklahoma senator’s hands, our environment’s best government officials might be sitting on the bench.