Obama’s Climate Challenge

Could the U.S. Supreme Court Derail International Climate Negotiations?

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the conclusion of his visit to Paris, France, December 1, 2015. Benoit Tessier / Reuters

In February 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court made an extraordinary decision. It temporarily suspended the implementation of President Barack Obama’s signature climate change initiative—the Clean Power Plan—which requires coal- and gas-fired power plants, the largest source of U.S. carbon pollution, to cut their emissions for the first time. At the Paris climate talks just two months prior, nearly 200 nations pledged to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions using a variety of domestic policies. Obama’s plan had become a crucial part of the United States’ strategy for meeting its own commitment in Paris: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.  

The Supreme Court was widely expected to deny the request for a stay, or a temporary halt, of the Clean Power Plan, which was brought by a group of more than two-dozen states along with a variety of coal industry and other challengers. There was little reason to believe the petitioners merited a stay. They had to show, among other things, that the Clean Power Plan would cause them “irreparable harm” as they waited for a lower court, in this case the D.C. District Court of Appeals, to decide whether to uphold it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the rule under the Clean Air Act, a 1970 law requiring the agency to regulate air pollution, including greenhouse gases. Since the D.C. court had expedited the hearing to June and signaled that it would decide the case soon, likely by the fall, the challengers seemed to face little harm in waiting a few months. The initial compliance deadline under the Clean Power Plan also does not begin until 2022.

In the end, the justices granted the stay. It was the first time the Supreme Court has ever halted a federal regulation before it has been reviewed by any lower court. It issued a brief order staying the rule, and the five justices who voted to do so (Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices

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