Twice this week, Amy Coney Barrett refused to acknowledge the scientific reality that the climate is changing.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee told the Senate Judiciary Committee she was “not a scientist” and therefore did “not have firm views” on the shifts in weather patterns, record-breaking temperatures and melting polar ice that even the most ardent defenders of the fossil fuel industry acknowledge. On Wednesday, she doubled down, saying that the very issue of climate change was “a very contentious matter of public debate” and “politically controversial.”
It isn’t, at least not for the vast majority of Americans or scientists going back nearly two centuries.
As far back as 1827, scientists understood that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels would prevent the sun’s heat from escaping back into space. By the 1970s, in-house researchers at Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp. and other oil giants confirmed that such warming was taking place and warned executives about it. Instead of reducing emissions, the industry hired some of the same campaigners that tobacco companies employed to seed doubt over the link between cigarettes and cancer to work on redirecting the political debate over how to address emissions into an argument over whether to do so at all.
Since then, carbon dioxide has surged past levels ever experienced in human history. The effects scientists long warned of ― hotter temperatures, more extreme weather, rising seas ― arrived, often sooner and with more intensity than models had predicted.
Countries closer to the equator are already experiencing some of the worst of it. But the United States is badly suffering. Wildfires in California consumed an unprecedented 4 million acres in just the past few weeks. The hyperactive hurricane season in the Atlantic this year broke several records, inundating Gulf states amid a pandemic. Nineteen of the 20 warmest years in history occurred since 2001, and federal scientists on Wednesday declared last month the hottest September since recordkeeping began 141 years ago.
Even Trump, who has long mocked climate science as a hoax, and the administration officials overseeing the rollback of rules to curb planet-heating gases, admit the climate is changing.
If confirmed, Barrett would be the fifth of nine Supreme Court justices nominated by a president who lost the popular vote. Yet her apparent views on climate science may be the most jarring example of how her lifetime appointment represents minority rule.
Seventy-two percent of Americans recognize the climate is changing, and 58% understand humans are the primary cause, according to national survey data by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Gallup pegged the latter number even higher, last year finding that 66% of Americans “believe global warming is caused by human activities.” The Pew Research Center last year found that 67% of U.S. adults think the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.
Seventy percent of likely voters polled by the think tank Data for Progress late last month agreed with the 2007 Supreme Court decision that found carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases qualify as pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate under the Clean Air Act. Most Republicans, 65%, agreed with the decision, which has forced the Trump administration to preserve some rules on planet-heating pollution.
Should the Republican-controlled Senate confirm Barrett, that public understanding of reality could weigh on her rulings.
Nineteen of the 20 warmest years in history occurred since 2001, and federal scientists on Wednesday declared last month the hottest September since records began 141 years ago.
A 2011 paper in the American Journal of Political Science concluded that “the influence of public opinion on Supreme Court decisions is real” and “substantively important.” The Supreme Court’s landmark rulings to desegregate schools and legalize same-sex marriage “were inconceivable until enormous changes in the surrounding social and political context had first occurred,” Harvard Law School professor Michael Klarman wrote in 2015.
The conservative-leaning bench already proved itself willing to strike down even modest regulations to curb greenhouse gases on technicalities. In 2016, the court ordered the Obama administration to temporarily halt implementation of a rule to limit emissions from power plants, handing a victory to Republican-led states that argued the regulation exceeded the federal government’s legal mandate.
Barrett’s unstated beliefs could face an early test. Less than two weeks before her confirmation hearings began, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by oil giants over lawsuits by cities seeking to hold the companies liable for climate damages. The firms, including BP and Royal Dutch Shell, want to move the suits from state to federal courts, where the industry expects more favorable rulings.
Barrett’s father, a Catholic deacon and former attorney, Mike Coney, said on his church’s website that “most of my legal career was spent as an attorney with Shell.” As the investigative newsletter The Daily Poster reported, Barrett included the Anglo-Dutch oil behemoth seven times in the recusal list that guides her work as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which she submitted to the Senate in her questionnaire. The list works as part of the court’s “automatic recusal system to help identify potential conflicts for the judges,” she wrote.
“Recusal itself is a legal issue,” Barrett said during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing. “Justice Ginsburg, in explaining the way recusal works, said that it’s always up to the individual justice, but it always involves consultation with the colleagues ― with the other eight justices. So that’s not a question that I could answer in the abstract.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ― the big business lobby which so aggressively promoted climate denial that some members of Congress and environmentalists dubbed it the “Chamber of Carbon” ― filed an amicus brief backing the oil companies’ appeal before the Supreme Court in April. The group swiftly endorsed Barrett’s nomination last month and began lobbying lawmakers to confirm her to the bench.