Q. What if a government refused to comply with a court order directing it to put into place a climate recovery plan that would reduce emissions sufficiently to stay below the 1.5 degree Celsius?
I have been writing a lot lately about the rising number and variety of environmental lawsuits being filed in state and federal courts. The hundreds of active climate-related cases exhibit a wide range of purpose. Some are asking a judge to overturn EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s summary suspension of an existing environmental regulation without the due process of law. In other cases, a criminal defendant is attempting to justify shutting down an oil pipeline as necessary to avoid a greater harm being done to the community. State and local governments have even begun asking the courts to hold oil companies financially accountable for the damage they do to their communities by emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide.
Recourse to the courts is a predictable response to the failure of government—especially the federal government—to construct and maintain a strong and stable bulwark against the increasing threats of climate change. Courts in the US are not alone in seeing an uptick in legal actions.
Judicial bodies around the world are being asked to elevate environmental sustainability to a fundamental human right and to order their governments to be more aggressive environmental protectors of nature and society.
The election of Donald Trump as president and Republican congressional majorities in 2016 has made crystal clear the vulnerability of federal climate policies and programs to shifting political winds. Although hardly a secret, the partisan nature of the global warming debate has never been as much in evidence as it is today.
The 115th Congress began rolling back Obama era environmental protections even before Donald John was sworn into office. From his first days in the Oval Office (#djtintheoffaloffice), Trump has been:
Legal actions questioning the diligence of governments and the culpability of fossil energy companies were being filed long before Trump came to town. Juliana v U.S., a case in which the plaintiffs are claiming a constitutional right to a habitable environment, was first filed against the Obama administration.
Trump’s election and the Republican’s capture of both the House and Senate, however, has ushered in an open hunting season on federal climate-related policies and programs. Any attempt to have legislation for the protection of the environment introduced into the current Congress is dead on arrival—as is any request of the White House.
Ever since the election of Trump as president and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, climate defenders are whistling past the White House and Congress.
The lack of a realistic political option (Plan A) has naturally caused climate defenders to pursue their objectives in court (Plan B). In the grander scheme things, however, the legal option is less than optimal. As will be explained further on Plan B's inherent weaknesses suggest the need of a Plan C.
The Senate is scheduled to be open for an additional 32 days. It’s not that the upper chamber works harder or has more to think about than the House, it’s more a reflection of a mistrust of the president—particularly this President. As long as the Senate is technically in session, the chance for Trump making interim appointments drops pretty much to zero.
I thought it helpful to provide a rundown of the remaining legislative days’ events and offer a bit of commentary about what Congress and the White House/executive branch will be doing between now and November. Having some idea of what our elected leaders and representatives are likely to be up to in Capital City should help readers plan what they might want to be up to politically themselves.
There are significant things still to be done by the 115th Congress. The Senate, for example, will have responsibility for acting on Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships and literally hundreds of key executive slots, including ambassadorships and the number two and three officials in many of the cabinet-level agencies and departments that have yet been filled or need to be re-filled because of presidential petulance.
Another mainstay legislative priority popping up before November is funding the government for Fiscal Year 2019. Most of the hard decisions have already been made. Some others do remain, e.g., the Farm Bill, will need new authorizing legislation. There will also be the inevitable surprises over which members of Congress will want to have some say.
Unaccountable occurrences can include, anything—airstrikes in Syria, escalated trade wars or skirmishes between the U.S. and any other nation in the world with the possible exception of Russia, the resignation of a president—as opposed to the continuing resignation of the nation to the president.
Much of the action over the next two months of legislative days, however, will amount to little more than a stylized pre-election dance. There will be the inevitable dumping of legislative proposals having no chance of being considered by the requisite committee let alone of passage.
EPA Administrator Pruitt’s announcement of the Agency’s intention to rollback the 2022 through 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set by the Obama administration as they were walking out the White House door was hardly surprising. It would be hard to overstate the significance of the rollback in terms of combatting climate change. Although the transportation sector is made up of more than CAFE covered vehicles, it is estimated that the 54.5 mpg standard would cut oil consumption by 12 billion barrels over the lives of covered vehicles and reduce CO2 emissions by six billion tons.
Candidate Trump telegraphed his intention to rollback CAFE and other Obama era environmental regulations throughout his campaign for the presidency. In Pruitt, President Trump has a witting tool to carry out his orders.
Part 1 of CAFE OLÉ offered a brief history of the legislation leading up to the present time and reviewed the records of Pruitt and the President both before and since their arrival in Capital City. Their past will likely prove the prologue to a reductive process that sets the new standard well below the 54.5 mpg established by the Obama. It is also likely that California’s request to set stricter requirements than the EPA will be denied for only the second time since 1972.
Part 2 begins by addressing the California question and why the Administration would be willing to deny the 135 million residents of states following California’s lead the opportunity to breathe fewer automotive fumes than the rest of the nation. The commentary then continues with a discussion of the major stakeholders in the standards-setting debate and suggests ways to move the dialogue into more constructive territory.
California or bust?
The 1970 federal Clean Air Act (CAA) provided a means by which California can secure a waiver from federal fuel efficiency standards permitting it to set its own more strident mpg requirements. California’s efforts to regulate auto emissions date back to 1966 when it became the first in the nation to regulate tailpipe emissions.
It comes as no surprise that EPA Administrator Pruitt recently announced the Agency’s intention to rollback the 2022 through 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for autos and light trucks. Candidate Trump telegraphed his intention to rollback CAFE and other Obama era environmental regulations while campaigning for the presidency.
In EPA Administrator Pruitt, President Trump has a witting tool to carry out his orders.
The Obama administration didn’t need any convincing of Trump’s intention to make good on his campaign promise. Just days before Donald John’s coming to Washington, EPA reaffirmed the 54.5 mpg[i] standard after evaluating the latest data to determine whether it remained technologically and economically feasible for the industry to meet the target. The current standard of 35.5[ii] mpg and the anticipated 2025 standard were originally agreed to in 2012.
The mid-term evaluation was to be completed before April 2018, according to the terms of the 2012 deal between the Obama administration and the auto industry. The 2022-2025 standards are often referred to as Phase 2. Phase 1 standards covered the years 2012 to 2016. By law, standards can be set for periods of no more than five years at a time. Standards for the period ending in 2030 will be the next tranche on the table.
In the eyes of the auto industry, the evaluation was a rush to judgment by the Obama White House to thwart—or at least impede—any effort by Trump’s troupe to make good on his campaign promise. On their own, CAFE standards are a very big deal as the transportation sector has now eclipsed the electric power as the largest source of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the U.S..
The Administration's current intention to rollback the Obama standard appears to be based on no new information. As far as anyone seems to know, the data on which the decision was made is the same used by Administrator McCarthy to reaffirm the 54.5 standard in 2017. Apparently, Pruitt simply took the auto industry’s assertion that the data does not support the higher mpg target.
Part 1 of Oyez, Oyez spoke of the emergence of a growing number of climate lawsuits looking to forge new foundations upon which to combat global warming. The lawsuits cited took two very different directions. The youthful plaintiffs in the Juliana case are seeking to establish both the federal government’s obligation to hold the nation’s natural resources in a public trust and their constitutional right to a healthy environment.
The cities and counties suing Chevron, ExxonMobil and other of the major oil companies are taking a primarily civil approach alleging the defendants of tortuous acts against their communities and seeking potentially billions of dollars in restitution. In both categories of cases, climate-science is as much on trial as the actions of the defendants.
Part 1 ended with a recap of the climate change tutorial given Judge Alsup as part of the case now pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In the tutorial, the lead defense attorney in the case admitted the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is spot on regarding the causes and consequences of global warming. Lawyer Boutrous, however, denied that the oil companies could be held liable.
Part 2 expands discussion of both case categories, starting with a Plan B defense by ExxonMobil to turn the liability tables on selected cities and counties by accusing them of lying to bond-holders about the soundness of the economic future facing their facing because of climate change. ExxonMobil’s request of the state court is less like a direct legal defense to the California and New York tort claims and more like an announcement that they are ready to rumble!
The days of constructive political debate and compromise in the legislative and executive branches of government are gone, leaving the courts as the primary venues in which the causes and consequences of global climate change are being debated, and stable solutions sought.
The growing number of climate cases being filed in both federal and state courts is paralleled by the increasing number of legal theories being relied upon to bring them. Today’s actions go much beyond traditional legal challenges, i.e., how an agency went about crafting or rescinding an environmental regulation or whether an emission exceeded the legal limit.
Some cases are looking to expand constitutional protections to guarantee the personal right to live life in a habitable environment. A right that, once established, requires a government response that rises above partisanship.
Other suits seek to recover the costs their communities have incurred because of a company’s knowing disregard of the damage caused by their emission of greenhouse gases—whatever the established legal limit.
The plaintiffs and defendants in climate cases vary and, at times, their roles are reversed. They include individuals of a certain age, federal, state, county and city governments, interest groups of both climate defenders and deniers, business organizations and major oil companies. Joining them as friends of the court (amici) are members of Congress, religious groups and former heads of federal agencies.
The courts were never designed to be the primary venue in which climate defenders and deniers were meant to debate and decide national environmental policy; they have taken on the role by default. There are limits to what the judiciary can consider, decide and do.
This article is the latest in the current series looking to the 2018 midterm Congressional elections as an opportunity to broaden support for federal clean energy and climate policies. Today’s installment addresses alternative facts and how membership in an identity group can impact the way people process climate data.
Not a problem to be solved quickly, climate change must be attended to steadily. Doing so requires forging a workable alliance of Republicans and Democrats—starting in local communities and ending in Capital City.
Fashioning any cross-aisle collaboration in today’s hyper-partisan environment is likely to prove messy. Passions run high on both sides, and there is enmity within. Cross-aisle cooperation requires lowering ideological barriers long enough to get something accomplished. Barriers define and protect, lowering them risks attack by both friends and enemies.
Today’s installment discusses why words matter, looks at some unlikely political pairings, identifies areas of agreement based on stated positions, and adds to the to-do list.
Ours is a nation so divided as to make a substantive national debate about the causes, consequences and required responses to climate change virtually impossible. In its inimitable style, a recent headline in the Onion read: Study: 90 Percent Of Americans Strongly Opposed To Each Other. The story quotes the imagined Babette Randolph: In the questionnaire we administered, nine out of 10 participants indicated they fundamentally disapproved of the actions currently being taken by their fellow citizens.
Although not quite as extreme as reported, the divide in America is real and having a profound influence on how people receive and perceive information.
Group affiliation is so dominant in today’s political arena as to have given rise to a willingness to accept lies as truths--
or at least as good enough for government work.
The Donald and his Congressional budget hawks are looking pretty profligate at the moment—having just added $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years for tax reforms, $300 billion for fiscal years 2018/2019 by the budget deal and a possible $25 billion more to build a Wall. Spending pressures on one side will be met with saving pressures on another.
Never keen on clean energy and the environment, to begin with, the Administration is likely to become more adamant in their attempts to keep a lid on federal climate-related programs. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is facing a proposed funding cut of over 70 percent from the current $2.04 billion to $575.5 million.
EERE is joined on the Administration’s hit parade of climate-related programs by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) [i] and Weatherization Assistance (WAP)[ii]. Total funding for the two is in an at-risk neighborhood of $3.6 billion.
Other proposed Administration eliminations are the State Department’s Global Climate Change Initiative at $1.3 billion and the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture. The $498 million Ag program helps rural households and businesses obtain reliable drinking water, as well as improve waste and stormwater systems.[iii]
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
Joan Didion/by way of W.B. Yates
It turns out that un-clapping Democrats were not the only ones accused of treasonous acts involving Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) performance. Bill Nye “, The Science Guy,” was roundly condemned by colleagues in the science community and progressive political activists for having consorted with an enemy of science. The enemy in question was Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s nominee to head NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency). The aid given was Nye’s accepting the Congressman’s invitation to attend the speech.
500 Women Scientists writing in Scientific American explained their accusation of Nye thus:
…by attending the SOTU as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest, Nye has tacitly endorsed those very policies and put his own personal brand over the interests of the scientific community at large. Rep. Bridenstine is a controversial nominee who refuses to state that climate change is driven by human activity, and even introduced legislation to remove Earth sciences from NASA’s scientific mission.
As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.
Once upon a time national environmental and clean energy policies were proposed, properly debated and acted upon by Congress and the president. In that bygone time the federal judiciary was called upon mainly to consider matters of constitutional import, clarify ambiguities and resolve conflicts between federal and state laws.
The days of constructive political debate and compromise in the legislative and executive branches of government are long gone, leaving the courts as the primary venues in which the causes and consequences of global climate change are debated, and solutions sought. The number of federal and state climate lawsuits related to Earth’s warming has steadily increased since 2006—so too has the role of science.
The rise in the number of cases is attributable to several factors—not the least of these is the fickleness of politics and persistent partisan gridlock. Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, offers as good an explanation of these developments as there is at the moment:
The judicial system is the only way to get the funds needed to deal with climate change. Legislation won’t work because that’s where lobbyists rule.
Hansen’s statement is an alternate reflection of Trump’s view of the Swamp he has so far failed to drain.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.