The Supreme Court ended its term this week by striking a blow to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its ability to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
The majority opinion, led by the court’s conservatives, focused on the EPA’s authority to influence “a significant portion of the American economy.” They say the agency needs Congressional approval to have such regulatory power.
But in her dissent, Justice Elana Kagan highlights that Congress and the Clean Air Act have already given the EPA the power to regulate any substance that “causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution” and that may “endanger public health or welfare.”
WNYC host Michael Hill speaks with Dr. Cecilia Sorensen, the director of Columbia University’s Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education, about what the ruling means for local and global health.
Their conversation is edited below for clarity.
Your research looks at the medical implications of the climate crisis and fossil fuel emissions.
What might this ruling mean for extreme weather and our health?
Well, that's a great question. We know that climate change is already having widespread impacts on human health, both in the New York-New Jersey area, as well as around the world.
We're seeing heat waves and rainstorms becoming more deadly. We're seeing disease outbreaks lasting longer. We're seeing extreme wildfire smoke affecting air quality, and we're seeing all of this really impact our health systems — and more so impact the most vulnerable of the people living in our communities. And so I'm deeply concerned about this Supreme Court decision.
When oil and natural gas are burned, they release more than just carbon. How do those other pollutants affect our health on a local scale?
Yeah, that's a great question. So we know that air pollution is responsible for roughly 40% of global deaths from COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma, 25% of deaths from stroke, 20% of neonatal deaths and 20% of deaths from lung cancer.
If you look back at what the EPA has done in order to try to mitigate these types of health impacts, we know that the health-related savings from the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 resulted in almost $600 billion in pollution-related health care savings.
The EPA has proven that it has been at least somewhat effective in buffering communities from these health impacts, which is why we need them in the fight against climate change.
The Supreme court decision focuses mainly on power plants, but what might it mean for the EPA’s ability to regulate other types of pollution from large-scale industries?
I'm thinking of companies that spill contamination into water or that lead to Superfund sites. I'm thinking of something like the Passaic River in New Jersey.
We don't know what this could mean in the future, but the fact that we have language now that is prioritizing economic and private interest over the interest of the health of communities is deeply concerning.
As you mentioned, these Superfund sites are incredibly expensive to clean up. But they also have massive health impacts on communities near them. What could happen in terms of how this new ruling is interpreted is to be determined. But I agree that many of these things are now at threat.
Carbon doesn't respect borders, as we know it spills into the atmosphere and goes just about everywhere. So what does the Supreme Court decision mean for U.S. commitments to climate change and America's influence on global health?
We know that the most severe impacts from climate change are being felt by the most vulnerable communities, both in the U.S as well as abroad.
The U.S. really needs to be leading on this to be coming through on their commitments to the Paris agreement. It looks really bad that we are fighting our own justice departments to be able to really make good on the fact that we are inflicting a lot of harm on people around the world and in our own country.
This is a big blow to the agenda that we have to really be global leaders in this space.