Even before the death of Antonin Scalia, February 2016 was history-making for the US Supreme Court. The stay the Court placed on the Obama Administration's regulation of coal-fired power plants, central to mitigating global climate change, is unprecedented. And now with one of the high court's seats empty, the long-term future of our climate, and health, is as uncertain as the near-term U.S. presidential elections.
Morally, however, the situation remains unchanged: failure to take action to alleviate the negative human effect on the environment, and to lead that effort globally, will be the cause of unjustifiable suffering and death. Any near-term benefits of delay cannot begin to outweigh the costs to current and future generations - especially to the global poor, who will be hit first and worst by the dangerous effects of climate change, and who did practically nothing to contribute to the problem.
Although the stay issued against Obama's Clean Power Plan is only temporary - the case will likely return to the Supreme Court after challenges are heard by an appeals court - this development could spell disaster for the fight against climate change. It indicates a lack of commitment on the part of the US at following through with essential climate change mitigation efforts, and essentially guarantees that the issue will not be settled during Obama's presidency.
But let's take a step back and see what the real cost of this decision could be. Remember the climate agreement in Paris in December? The one that everyone praised and cheered, and that so many said was the first real step towards saving us from climate change? To really understand the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling, we need to look closely at the significance of that deal, and what this latest development means for it.
The Paris Agreement has widely been publicized to promise limiting global warming to 2.7°C, which is already well above the 2° threshold for 'dangerous climate change'. But the truth is, 2.7° is the low end of the estimate from Paris. In fact, the pledges submitted by member states at the COP21 meeting in Paris are estimated to limit global warming to 2.7-3.5°C.
Let me be clear: 3.5°C would be catastrophic. It would result in portions of the earth being virtually uninhabitable by humans. Low lying island nations would slip under water, as would many major coastal cities, and densely-populated delta areas like those of Bangladesh. Since average warming is distributed unevenly over land and water, much of the inhabited portions of the earth would see average temperatures 5°C higher, contributing to deadly heat in equatorial and desert regions. Large portions of Africa would suffer catastrophic crop loss, and the number of people suffering from food shortage and severe water stress would be in the billions. Wild fires would rage completely out of control during the summer months, and devastating tropical storms would be increasingly frequent. Weather, lack of food and water, and changes in disease vectors would likely force hundreds of millions of people from their homes, in search of someplace more hospitable. All of these threats would be profoundly economically and politically destabilizing, resulting in a heightened risk of armed conflict.
The Paris Agreement, then, clearly needs strengthening - risking a 3.5°C temperature rise should be seen as a minimum achievement. However, even this minimal achievement has not yet been secured, as the agreement hasn't been ratified, and there are no concrete plans for most countries to reach their self-imposed limits. So how did governments convince one another that they were serious about doing their part? How did countries like the US, in particular, which is an enormous part of the problem, convince other countries that we are serious? Well, President Obama pointed to his EPA regulations of the coal industry, which is our most significant climate change mitigation effort to date. And prior to each country ratifying the Paris Agreement this spring, you can bet that governments will be watching one another - especially the big emitters like the US and China - looking for signs of good faith.
And this is what those other countries will see: the US Supreme Court taking unprecedented legal action to stay the EPA regulations. The Court, and the politicians challenging the regulations, are saying loud and clear that we aren't planning to do our part in activating a climate change mitigation strategy that needed strengthening rather than weakening.
In the time between now and ratification of the Paris Agreement, Americans need to show our partners abroad that we do, in fact, want to start the process of solving the climate change crisis. The Supreme Court vote to stay Obama's Clean Power Plan was 5-4, divided along ideological lines; with Justice Scalia's passing, the plan may yet survive the coming challenges, but only if we make it clear to our politicians that doing our part to fight catastrophic climate change is a priority.
How do we do that? Luckily it's an election year. I think it's time to vote environmentally. If Republican officials have their way, then President Obama will be unable to confirm a Supreme Court Justice to replace Justice Scalia, meaning that the next president will play a large role in deciding whether the Court is split 5-4 against climate change regulation, or for it. The front-running Republican candidates, however, do not exactly have a sterling reputation on climate change. Donald Trump has recently said that he is 'not a believer' in anthropogenic climate change, and both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were pressured by the Koch brothers to sign a pledge to oppose any climate change legislation that includes a net increase in government revenue. This despite the fact that Rubio represents the state of Florida, which is already experiencing the harms of rising sea-levels and increased storm surge - facts that the Senator has ignored or denied, at the cost of failing to help the state take adaptive measures.
So the stakes are high in this year's presidential election. The actions of the Supreme Court have already put the Paris Agreement in jeopardy, as other countries may have a hard time trusting the US to keep up our end of the bargain. And if we are to avoid global catastrophe, this agreement must be the beginning of the conversation - not the end. So let's do our best to tell the international community that we won't torpedo global efforts to fight climate change; we can do this by changing the conversation when we can, and shouting from the mountaintops if we must. And let's, please, elect a president who won't risk the future of the planet because change would be too hard for us Americans.