The Environmental Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg means the nation's highest court has lost a staunch advocate for women's rights and civil rights. Ginsburg was a tireless worker, who continued to serve on the bench through multiple bouts of cancer. She also leaves behind a complicated environmental legacy, as Environment and Energy News (E&E News) reported.
While it was often assumed that Ginsburg would decide in favor of environmental advocates in cases argued before the Supreme Court, the truth is that she often decided based on the nuances of the law rather than the decision that was best for the planet, according to E&E News.
She sided with the majority in the 5-4 decision of Massachusetts v. EPA. That case, argued before the court in 2006 and decided in 2007, found that the Clean Air Act gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate greenhouse gases that are spewed from the tailpipes of cars, according to POLITICO.
That decision was instrumental in the Obama administration raising the tailpipe emissions standard to make new cars 5 percent more efficient annually until 2026. That rule was then rolled back by the Trump administration to make them just 1.5 percent more efficient, according to Reuters.
And yet, Ginsburg also wrote the opinion of the court in the 2011 decision of American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut. That decision stripped the authority of the states and private companies to sue power companies for their contribution to the climate crisis in federal court under a public nuisance law, as E&E news reported.
Ginsburg, in that decision, emphasized the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, as POLITICO reported. That authority paved the way for the Obama administration to issue new rules for power plants that drastically reduced how much pollution they could spew into the air and waterways.
The decision, which on its face seemed to limit the rights of people and states to hold polluters accountable for their actions, actually empowered state attorneys general to sue in state court. This authority has been upheld, despite repeated attempts by the fossil fuel industry to move the cases to the federal courts, according to POLITICO.
Ginsburg did look to expand the authority of regulatory agencies to rein in polluters. She joined the dissent in two notable cases, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers and Rapanos v. United States, both of which would have expanded the definition of the Clean Water Act, according to E&E News.
In 2014, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in a case that allowed the EPA to regulate coal plants where their emissions blew across state lines and affected the air quality of states that were downwind, according to The Washington Post. That case is credited with putting an end to some of the country's filthiest power plants, according to POLITICO.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator under Obama and now the president and CEO of the National Resources Defense Council, said in 2014 that the decision was "a resounding victory for public health and a key component" of the agency's attempts to "make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe," as The Washington Post reported.
In an NRDC statement on Friday, McCarthy praised Ginsburg's life work. "From her pathbreaking advocacy for gender equality to her relentless defense of democracy itself, Justice Ginsburg widened our vision of who we are, enlarged in law the values we share and raised, forever, the possibility of what we might become."
Other environmental advocates issued statements praising the late justice as well.
"Justice Ginsburg was a pioneer for gender equality, civil rights, and the right of citizens to sue to protect their environment. The legal community lost a champion for the underdog and the nation as a whole," said Trent Dougherty, general counsel for the Ohio Environmental Council, in a statement.
Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director said in a statement, "As we mourn the loss of Justice Ginsburg, we should reflect on her words that 'Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time. Those of us who strive to make change for good in this world — whether it be fighting for racial justice, reproductive rights, or for a livable future — must continue the fight in her honor."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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