Court action on climate plan a speed bump

Lost amid the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the immediately ensuing political battle over whether President Barack Obama should nominate a successor (he should) has been a high court ruling with potentially global consequences.

In the days before Scalia’s demise, the court voted to freeze Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the foundation on which the U.S. built its promise to reduce the discharge of heat-trapping gases as part of last year’s historic Paris climate accord.

The treaty, signed by some 185 nations, is the best international effort yet put forth to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and the court action was dispiriting not just to the Obama administration but to heads of state around the world that signed on thanks largely to American leadership.

The vote, coming just days before the 79-year-old Scalia was found dead at a West Texas ranch, was particularly surprising given that the case hadn’t yet reached the Supreme Court.

The predictable challenge from 27 mostly red-state governors, still wending its way through lower courts, is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

That the high court felt compelled to weigh in early – and, to supporters of the Clean Power Plan, unproductively – was seen as a reliable indicator of which way the justices might be leaning, if not how they might ultimately vote.

That indicator is now significantly less reliable.

Scalia, as was so often the case, sided with the 5-4 conservative majority – a parting vote from the long-serving justice that reinforces current arguments regarding the significance of his absence – and his successor.

In something of an irony, the court’s eagerness to jump in may provide an inadvertent lifeline for the program, which would require states to come up with plans to reduce the CO2 emissions from their electric power plants.

“If Scalia’s seat remains vacant when the Clean Power Plan reaches the high court, a 4-4 vote would result in an automatic affirmance of the D.C. Circuit’s decision on the rule,” Jack Lienke, an attorney with the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, told The Washington Post.

No way to know how the lower court will rule but, as Lienke points out, the three-judge panel includes two Democratic appointees and has previously declined motions to stay the Clean Power Plan. Supporters are optimistic.

Even more encouraging for those who rightly believe the U.S. must lead on the issue of slowing global warming: the legal machinations may be beside the point.

While efforts to stall the Clean Power Plan are disappointing and counterproductive, market forces and technological advances may ultimately render them meaningless.

Consider the response from major utility companies to the Supreme Court ruling: A yawn.

That’s because the transition to more climate-friendly methods of generating power is already well under way.

Energy producers are saying goodbye to coal-burning plants in favor of cleaner – and, most importantly, cheaper – technologies like wind, solar and super-efficient generators that burn natural gas.

Bottom line: A spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the largest trade association of electricity providers, said the Supreme Court’s decision “doesn’t really change anything.”

That may be overstating things. After all, it would be far more reliable to have greenhouse gas-reduction efforts in place as a matter of national policy, rather than simply as profitable business model (though the latter certainly reinforces the former).

Too, the U.S. needs to begin work as soon as possible if it is to even approach the target of reducing emissions as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Giving those who either won’t concede or don’t believe there is a problem an excuse to drag their feet is recipe for failure.

So judicial resolution is a must, and the sooner the better. But it is heartening that such a decision, when it comes, will not be a make-or-break ruling.

It is heartening that, along with new auto-industry fuel standards, that one of the biggest generators of greenhouse gases, the utility industry, is sprinting in the direction of cleaner energy.

This is what was needed all along – not just a political action or a legal decision, but a business mindset that recognizes that new, more efficient ways of generating power are not just good for the environment, but for the bottom line.