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Scalia Vacancy Puts in Play US Pledge to Paris Agreement

March 21, 2016
By: Victor Menotti

President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat of deceased Justice Antonin Scalia may begin a new battle between parties, but its resolution could clearly solidify or sink the 2015 Paris Agreement for climate protection just signed by almost 200 nations.

Obama’s push for approval will be met by his opponents’ in the Senate preferring to punt any decisions until after November 2016 elections. As if the stakes weren’t already high enough for Americans’ electing a new President, 34 of the 100 Senate seats, and all of the 435 in the House, the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia has also put the government’s third branch, the Supreme Court, front and center in the current election cycle.

2014 Climate March in Oakland
2014 Climate March in Oakland. Credit: Oakland Institute

Recent US elections have increasingly rolled back America’s ability to help avert an accelerating climate catastrophe due to the fact that Republicans elected to Congress are funded foremost by fossil-fuel billionaires, Charles and David Koch, whose political agenda is to end all regulations against fossil fuels. The Koch brothers currently outspend other oil companies and individual donors on US elections to influence all branches of government responsible for reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change — and instead protect their carbon wealth.

Wealthier than Bill Gates, the Koch brothers have spent unprecedented amounts of money since the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—$400 million in 2012, $500 million in 2014, and almost $1 billion planned in 2016—to support candidates who consistently block any climate action while advancing their carbon agenda in Congress. Antonin Scalia was a crucial connection to the U.S. Supreme Court for the Kochs and a regular attendee of the brothers’ private policy seminars with conservative billionaires and other like-minded politicians. Tea Party Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another regular attendee, is now positioned as the reasonable alternative presidential candidate compared to outsider, Donald Trump.

Among Scalia’s last judicial acts—before dying at the Texas ranch of John Poindexter, a CEO who recently had business before the court—halted America’s pledge to the Paris Agreement. A January 2016 Supreme Court decision delayed—and could soon determine—the constitutionality of the core policy comprising the US contribution to the Paris Agreement, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). CPP relies on setting standards on power plants under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate pollutants of greenhouse gases, a principle Scalia disagreed with in stunning disregard for science.

Polluters argue that the EPA is overstepping its authority by binding states to carbon-cutting plans beginning in 2020. Scalia may well have revealed his own partiality when he stated to an audience of university students that the “EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency. Not the Atmospheric Protection Agency,” when asked about how he incorporated scientific information into his judicial decisions.

Whereas there is an increasing scientific consensus on the intensifying impact of climate change worldwide, who replaces Scalia on the Supreme Court is a burning question for global climate action and future US climate policy. The Senate might not allow President Obama’s nomination to go forward, and no new Justice to be seated until after elections. Then voters will also be choosing, when they elect their new President and Congress, the values of their new Supreme Court. Americans must effectively mobilize to out-organize the country’s two top oligarchs, making the most of this election’s open seats as an epic opportunity to align all U.S. branches of government towards urgently addressing today’s increasingly scary climate crisis.