The Supreme Court's order late Tuesday halting President Obama's Clean Power Plan is frustratingly opaque. The terse ruling offers no hints about why the court took the unusual step of pausing Obama's important new regulations — which would have significantly curtailed emissions from the nations' coal-fired electric plants — before a lower court had ruled on their legality. The justices may be sending the president a message about his expansive use of executive authority. Or the court may be trying to avoid a repeat of last summer's Michigan v. EPA ruling, in which most of the nation's power plants were already far along the path to compliance before the court got around to striking down the regulations that had been challenged in that case.
It's fruitless to predict how the court will ultimately rule in the current case, but for now the regulations are on hold. This comes at a bad time for a world that had finally appeared to be making modest progress in grappling with global warming. The Clean Power Plan, though its goals are insufficiently ambitious, is the centerpiece of the administration's carbon-reduction promises under December's Paris Agreement, in which nearly 200 nations committed to limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This delay sends the wrong signal about the U.S. government's reliability in fulfilling its promises.
Yet all is not lost. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is expected to hear arguments in June on the merits of the challenge to the EPA's regulations, and if the fight reaches the Supreme Court, a decision likely wouldn't come until after Obama leaves office. If the EPA prevails, states will still have time to move away from coal-fired energy production under a timetable that is supposed to see reductions begin in 2022. If the EPA loses, the next president must work with Congress to achieve the same or an even more ambitious goal, though that seems likely only to happen if the Democrats take power. As it is, at least 18 states, including California, support the Clean Power Plan, and there is nothing to preclude them from moving ahead on their own (California has already practically eliminated coal from its energy portfolio, and is ahead of the federal Clean Power Plan timeline for reducing carbon emissions).
Meanwhile, the administration has taken other steps to meet its 2025 goal of cutting domestic greenhouse gas emissions to as much as 28% below 2005 levels. It has set a 54.5 mpg standard by 2025 for cars and light-duty trucks, and last month moved to limit methane emissions from future natural gas and oil wells. The Department of the Interior froze new coal mining leases on federal land pending a review of how coal mining fits in with the department's responsibility to develop energy sources while protecting the environment. The moratorium sends a signal that the nation is recalibrating at a fundamental level where it will draw its energy from. This doesn't affect existing coal mines.
As welcome as these steps are, the U.S. and other nations need to do more. Climate change has already melted glaciers, shrunk the Arctic ice cap, shifted plant and animal ranges and intensified extreme weather. Yet those are just glimpses of a future in which, without significant global action now, change will become more pronounced, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
What's needed is an even higher sense of urgency, not obstructionist moves based on politics — most of the states suing the EPA are Republican-led. And the fossil-fuel industry needs to recognize that the nation's future energy production must move in a different, renewable direction. Addressing global warming will be disruptive and expensive, but it must be done.