Since Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death last weekend, there’s been a glut of articles analyzing what his absence means for the balance of power in the US Supreme Court. One writer taking a bold stance is Maddie Stone, who asserts in a piece for Gizmodo that “Scalia’s death may have saved the planet” from the looming catastrophe of climate change. Of course matters aren’t entirely that simple; we don’t yet know who will be nominated to replace Scalia, or if Congressional Republicans will even allow a new nominee to be appointed.
Still, it’s difficult to understate the influence the new justice will have on future climate policy in the US and around the world. In early February, Scalia and his fellow justices voted to freeze Obama’s Clean Power Plan when 29 Republican-led states registered their complaints about the new policy. Just a week ago, the court was split 5-4 against this desperately needed policy, potentially putting the recent Paris climate agreement in danger of unraveling. Now, the court is deadlocked, and the new nominee could make the difference between the US taking meaningful action on climate change or simply standing back and doing nothing.
Scalia’s personal influence on environmental policy during his lifetime was a source of constant frustration for those of us who care about protecting the planet. In 2007, he staunchly opposed the EPA’s attempts to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, claiming the atmosphere was not part of the environment. During his tenure, he proudly proclaimed that he was “not a scientist” and would rather not deal with difficult environmental questions at all. Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising from a man who used his position to advocate that creationism be taught in schools.
It may take some time before we find out who will replace Scalia and how their influence may change the makeup of the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans have already promised to block any nominations Obama might make in the run up to the 2016 election, so it’s possible the battle for control of the court will drag on for most of the year. The future of our climate may depend on who is elected the next president of the United States, a stark reminder of how much is at stake this election and how important it is for everyone who cares about the environment to show up at the ballot box come November.
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