SCOTUS Hopes You Like the Taste of Acid Rain

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Are you guys familiar with the term “crop dusting”? Not the original meaning where an airplane drops pesticides on a field, but the alternate meaning, in which a person walks into a room, blasts a disgusting, tear-inducing fart, and just keeps walking right out the door, leaving the room’s occupants to gag on the smell and fight over who did it. That is, essentially, what the Supreme Court of the United States just done to America. They’ve crop-dusted us. Honestly it may have been a shart. In just a week or two, they dropped a series of judgments essentially destroying the country before peacing out for a nice three-month summer vacation.

So previously I’ve talked about the dismantling of Roe v. Wade and the destruction of the wall separating Church and State. Today I’m going to talk about one final decision from this session: the neutering of the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 via executive order by Richard Nixon and officially approved by Congress with the express purpose of, well, protecting the environment. They do this through fines, sanctions, carrots and sticks to decrease or stop industries from polluting our air, water, and land. Shortly after they came into existence, the EPA conducted a survey called Documerica, in which they collected tens of thousands of photos of what America looked like before they began their work. You can see most of these photos for free online at the National Archives: pesticide cans discarded in a field; a river of oil pouring down a barren hillside; unhealed scars from slash and burn forestry; an oil slick surrounding the Statue of Liberty;

Ten years after its establishment, the EPA was granted the authority to clean up what became known as “superfund” sites where hazardous waste was infecting the land. For instance, General Electric spent 30 years dumping hundreds of thousands of pounds of highly carcinogenic PCBs into the Hudson River, and the EPA made them remove it in just six years. In the Boston area, 1.7 billion gallons of sewage used to stream into the Charles River every year, but the EPA demanded that drains get upgraded and all but eliminated the problem, making the river swimmable in 2013 for the first time in 60 years. There are stories like this all over the country: rivers, lakes, and streams that residents couldn’t get anywhere near for decades, now able to be fished, able for kids to swim, able for wildlife to return.

The EPA is also the steward of the Clean Air Act, a program meant to address air pollution in the US. How bad was that? Well, back in 1949, SMOG killed 20 people in one small Pennsylvania town, leaving thousands others with severe respiratory problems and increasing the town’s mortality figures for at least a decade. Acid rain was also a common problem: fossil fuel powerplants pumping chemicals into the air that fell back on our heads as acid. The EPA instituted a two-stage program to clean up these plants by the year 2000, and they achieved every goal they set via cap and trade–capping total emissions, and trading credits.

In 2021, researchers found that the Acid Rain Program “caused lasting improvements in ambient air quality” and reduced mortality by 5% over ten years, which continued to grow as time went on.

In 2015, the Obama administration attempted to enact the Clean Power Plan, which would set goals for each state to reduce emissions by moving from greenhouse gases to renewables, but it was put on hold by the Supreme Court at the time because several Republican-led states objected to the idea on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. That hold lasted all the way to 2019, when Trump tried to throw the CPP away because it gave the EPA too much power, arguing that they were allowed to regulate individual power plants but not the industry as a whole. A lower court then threw out THAT idea, saying the EPA was perfectly within its rights mandated by Congress to find the “best system of emission reduction” possible.

As of last week, the Clean Power Plan had never gone into effect at all, and Biden had announced a plan to come up with something new, so there was no actual reason for the Supreme Court to pick this up. But they did, because they are alt-right theocrats hell-bent on destroying not just this country but the entire planet. The six conservative justices ruled that the EPA had absolutely no right to regulate emissions with industry-wide changes, saying that if Congress wants to do that, they’ll have to get together and come up with their own legislation to do it. Which they won’t, because they are owned in part or in full by the fossil fuel industry. The EPA was the one agency authorized to combat that problem, and now they have no weapons to do so.

In her dissent, Elena Kagan wrote that when the EPA was established and as it evolved over the years, it’s clear that Congress wanted the agency to do exactly what it has been doing: using new ideas and new tools to combat a problem that Congress itself cannot or will not do. “The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision-maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

One of the only good aspects of our democracy is that it makes room for politicians to understand that they are not necessarily the experts in a particular field, and they are not necessarily free from conflicts of interest. A person cannot be an expert on writing and passing legislation, healthcare, assault weapons, animal welfare, libel law, and carbon emissions at the same time. Even Leonardo DaVinci didn’t know shit about women. So a smart person, a good politician, knows what they don’t know, and they know to trust the experts. In this case, while their record has been anything but stellar, Congress has generally understood that the scientists, engineers, and specialists at the Environmental Protection Agency are the experts at protecting the environment. You know, the planet, that we all live on.

So this is, to put it lightly, a disappointing result, particularly coming not quite a year after the latest IPCC report on climate change that found that drastic action is needed immediately to avoid turning our planet into a literal hellscape.

So, what do we do? I don’t have an answer for that, and I’m sorry.

Moving on to another topic entirely, I’m thinking of adding a little book chat to my videos. I just finished reading Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I really enjoyed it and I highly recommend you read it, too. Without getting into too many spoilers, the plot is that in the very near future, humanity realizes that they are facing the grim consequences of the past few centuries of their own actions and drastic action is needed immediately to avoid turning our planet into a literal hellscape. So the United Nations establishes an agency with the goal of protecting future generations: The Ministry for the Future. They start out by asking countries to meet certain goals for reducing emissions, but some countries do it and others don’t because they’re run by the fossil fuel industry, and everyone suffers.

But at some point, some of the people in charge realize that they need to think outside the box and use a variety of tools to combat not just climate change but capitalism itself. There are geoengineering projects, the introduction of a “carbon coin” based on the real-life Global Carbon Reward concept, there’s trickery that pushes banks to crack down on dark money, and there’s terrorism. Yep, escalating terrorism targeted at private jet owners and other wealthy fossil fuel advocates, as government agencies turn a blind eye.

I will leave it to you to read the book and decide if, within the universe presented in the book, these tactics are plausible, effective, or moral. I’ll also leave it to you to decide how these tactics apply to our current situation, when the stakes are so high and our institutions are failing us so purposely and directly.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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