The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week to order the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to suspend its regulation to cut emissions from power plants—called the Clean Power Plan—was a shot across the bow to the President’s climate legacy. Checked by Congress in 2010, Obama had to resort to regulation in order to achieve his climate goals, and the centerpiece of that strategy was the now-frozen Clean Power Plan, which set emissions reductions goals for states but did not specify how they might achieve those. The downside of going the regulation route, as has just been illustrated, is that it opens itself up to legal challenges, and so far 27 states have filed suit. The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA can’t enforce the Clean Power Plan until these challenges are settled, and in so doing set itself up as the likely eventual decider of the regulation’s fate.
Justice Scalia’s death adds another layer of uncertainty on the matter, however, as he was one of the 5 justices who voted to suspend. If the Clean Power Plan really is kaput, though, Obama loses his marquee emissions reduction policy tool, and the U.S. loses the ability to follow through on what we “committed” to at the December Paris climate summit. Unsurprisingly, America’s head climate negotiator has spent the last week assuring the rest of the world that all is well. The BBC reports:
As US lead negotiator, Todd Stern has been visiting Europe as part of efforts to “reassure” countries that America will stick to its promises. “We anticipate that the Clean Power Plan will be upheld,” he told reporters in London. “But if for whatever reason it is not, then we will have to use other means to get to our target, but we are not backing off our target.” […]
“There was a lot of blowback that the US got generally diplomatically across the range of diplomatic concerns and I have no doubt that it would be very significant if the US were to do that with regard to Paris, probably much, much more significant than what happened before,” [said Stern]. “There is a record there that you can look at to have a pretty good sense that there would be diplomatic consequences.”
Stern is trying to paint a menacing picture of ominous “consequences” if the U.S. doesn’t follow through on what it agreed upon in Paris, but already we’re seeing just how toothless this treaty was. The UN isn’t going to sanction the U.S. if the Clean Power Plan is binned, and this lack of an enforceability mechanism is one of the key problems with any international approach to climate change. The United States isn’t the only country whose court system or domestic politics are going to make it difficult to achieve the goals set in Paris, but there’s nothing beyond “naming and shaming” that the international community can do to cajole a country into sticking to the deal. We knew in the run-up to the Paris summit that any deal reached would be little more than a green version of the Kellogg-Briand pact, and now we’re seeing that in action. It sure didn’t take long.