The United States took a hard, fast and dangerous turn during the last eight days of June, when members of the Supreme Court’s ultraconservative wing — emboldened and empowered by four years of the Trump administration and an even longer period of court-stacking machinations by Sen. Mitch McConnell — fulfilled their long-simmering mandate to cripple the federal government and reduce the rights enjoyed and depended on by Americans.
Their accomplishments included slashing reproductive rights, expanding gun rights, reducing Miranda rights, eroding the separation of church and state, whittling away at Tribal sovereignty and, in one last blow, partially dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate pollution — a decision that could have dangerous effects on the worldwide climate as well as the power of all other federal agencies.
“I cannot think of many things more frightening,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent of the EPA decision. “Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.’ … The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision-maker on climate policy.”
Meanwhile, thanks to the Congressional commission investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, we learned more about the insidious depths of Trump’s attempted coup. Apparently, democracy came close to ending not with a bang or a whimper but with the signatures of fake electors, the crash of fine China, and the sight of leftover ketchup dripping down the White House walls.
What does this momentous month mean for the future? We’ve collected some essential reads, context and commentary about these issues.
Abortion and Reproductive Rights:
Why are abortion rights an environmental issue? Kierán Suckling, executive director of our parent organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote this: “Without reproductive justice there can’t be environmental justice. People, wildlife and wild places across the world are threatened by the same systems of abuse and exploitation. Pregnant people are particularly vulnerable to the harms of pollution, and sexual and reproductive healthcare are critical to help people face the challenges of the climate crisis.”
Ms. Magazine made similar points back in March in an extensive piece by Katherine Gladhart-Hayes, who pointed out that climate change, wildfires, increased storms and pandemics make travel particularly dangerous for any people who need to travel to find abortion access.
For added context, Naveena Sadasivam and Eve Andrews wrote for Grist about how the Roe v. Wade decision would affect pregnant people in pollution hotspots.
Of course, it’s not just abortion. As Justice Clarence Thomas made clear in the Supreme Court’s decision, birth control is now in his crosshairs.
And speaking of birth control, Thomas has an unlikely ally tangentially tied to the environmental movement: online natural-living influencers who promote a “glamorous version of femininity untarnished by modern chemicals,” as Keira Butler at Mother Jones wrote recently. By the way, these are the same types of people who often spread disinformation about vaccines and Covid-19.
On a related note, NBC News sent its producers to several crisis pregnancy centers, which don’t offer abortion services, and found them to be hotbeds of scientific disinformation — often from the same types of faith-based groups that have been known to spread climate disinformation and dissent.
One last added context: Some legal scholars also worry that the ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization narrows who could have standing in legal cases and therefore could limit which cases are heard — a problem that could stretch well beyond women’s health. “Dobbs can be read as a signal that the new conservative majority is poised to embrace a once-minority viewpoint on third-party standing, making it harder for environmental advocates and other public interests to pry open the courthouse door,” John Echeverria, a professor at Vermont Law School, told E&E News.
Insurrection and Extremism:
Will the Jan. 6 hearings make any long-term difference to those whose minds have already been poisoned by Trump’s lies? Cassidy Hutchinson’s bombshell testimony on June 29 made some inroads into the right-wing media echo chamber, but pundits like Tucker Carlson continue to diminish and disparage the commission’s work — all while spreading more lies and conspiracy theories. Death threats against the committee and their family members highlight this continued threat to democracy, which puts all other progress at risk.
Speaking of threats: Several dozen members of the Proud Boys have been convicted or remain in jail awaiting trial for their roles in the insurrection, but don’t count these far-right extremists out. Although their national leadership is currently in shambles, local Proud Boys chapters have grown since Jan. 6, and they’re increasingly showing up to cause trouble at events like town halls and school board meetings. At least 17% of these appearances have turned violent.
There is, of course, an environmental connection: As climate journalist Emily Atkin wrote in 2020, the Proud Boys and their ilk are driven by “the exact same type of masculinity that researchers have repeatedly shown to be a driving force behind climate denial.” Oh, and some of them are running for or have been voted into office.
The Proud Boys haven’t shown up at many environmental events yet, but let’s not forget the link between violent far-right extremism, racism and eco-fascism, or that Homeland Security says the country “remains in a heightened threat environment” and that it fears further violence from domestic terror.
That threat has grown in the American West, which journalist Leah Sottile calls “a de facto testing ground for the far right to see what it can get away with.” She points to militias summoned by the antigovernment Bundy clan to their infamous 2014 standoff in Nevada and the 2016 occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, adding that members of those militia groups later stormed the Capitol in 2021.
Finally, we also need to remember the link between the insurrection and corporate interests. This relationship is perhaps most closely embodied by one of the foot soldiers of the coup, Jeffrey Clark, who is often mischaracterized in the media as an “environmental lawyer.” But as Lawrence Tribe and many others have pointed out, he’s the opposite — “a hired gun for the fossil fuel industry.”
Pollution and Climate:
Why does the Supreme Court’s ruling against the EPA matter? Oddly enough, it doesn’t change any existing regulations, but it does place limits on future regulations from the EPA and other agencies. Basically, the court is saying that major policies and actions need to come from Congress, not a federal agency. Of course, given the current disfunction in Congress, how likely is that?
Adding further context, Cara Horowitz, the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, explained that the ruling “holds that it is unlawful for EPA to regulate existing power plant climate pollution by requiring generation shifting from dirtier sources to cleaner ones — which my grid expert clients and many others know to be the best, cheapest and fastest way to reduce climate pollution from this sector.”
How did this happen? Writing in The New Yorker, Bill McKibben gives some important historical context for the ruling, explaining how it’s “the culmination of a five-decade effort to make sure that the federal government won’t threaten the business status quo.” Echoing that, Emily Sanders of the Center for Climate Integrity wrote that Big Oil finally got what it paid for, and Coral Davenport of The New York Times wrote that the case was “the product of a coordinated, multiyear strategy by Republican attorneys general, conservative legal activists and their funders, several with ties to the oil and coal industries, to use the judicial system to rewrite environmental law, weakening the executive branch’s ability to tackle global warming.” We can be sure that push will continue now that they have this victory under their belts.
But all is not lost. Writing on the Legal Planet blog, environmental law professor Dan Farber calls the Supreme Court decision “more than a flesh wound” but emphasizes that “it didn’t hit any vital organs.” He continues: “Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion leaves EPA other options to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. It also gives a fairly narrow reading to a legal doctrine that could limit the fallout from the case in terms of other regulatory powers.”
On that note, climate journalist Amy Westervelt laid out several ways the EPA, the federal government (especially the Biden administration), state and local governments, and activists can still act on climate. It’s a great roadmap for change.
Looking to the future, this ruling isn’t the only legal threat to environmental protections. Umair Irfan and Neel Dhanesha at Vox highlight some concerning state actions and an upcoming Supreme Court case in October that will determine how the EPA is able to regulate pollution in our waterways.
Finally, here’s an important reminder from the not-so-distant past: what America looked like before the EPA.
Previously in The Revelator: