The Supreme Court Sucks, But We the People Are Not Without Power

Fuck the Supreme Court. First it was Bush v. Gore. Then Citizens United. Then a few weeks ago it struck down New York’s commonsense gun restrictions, then Roe v. Wade. And today this kangaroo court hamstrung the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. This court has consistently put business before people and profit before the collective good. Faced with an opportunity to affirm hope and practical measures in the face of humanity’s greatest threat, it did the opposite. Knowing that we’re speeding toward a cliff, the court stomped on the accelerator, perhaps to consume more petroleum for its fossil fuel backers while it can.

Today’s West Virginia v. EPA decision hung on the rather weedy concept of “generational shifting”—that is, it struck down EPA’s ability to order utilities to switch from dirty generators to cleaner ones. In this sense, it was a narrow ruling, but the court’s rational was much larger and its effect potentially much bigger: Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts said that on issues of “major questions” such as climate, “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself…Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’ but it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan pulled no punches. “This Court has obstructed EPA’s effort from the beginning. Right after the Obama administration issued the Clean Power Plan, the Court stayed its implementation. That action was unprecedented: Never before had the Court stayed a regulation then under review in the lower courts…The limits the majority now puts on EPA’s authority fly in the face of the statute Congress wrote.”

Kicking it back to Congress as Roberts suggests is of course a non-starter, as the legislative body is paralyzed by dysfunction and the influence of special interests, whose power was amplified by the Roberts’ court’s Citizens United decision.

EPA still has the ability to regulate emissions from motor vehicles, one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, but, as Bill McKibben noted today in the New Yorker, “A train of similar cases now approaches the high court—they would, for instance, make it all but impossible for the federal government to regulate tailpipe emissions or to consider the financial toll of climate change when deciding whether to approve a new pipeline.” [Boldface mine.]

It doesn’t take a jurisprudence nerd to guess which way those cases will go.


Like many outdoor lovers, I’ve spent much of the last decade bouncing between climate anxiety, grief, and despair, with minor bouts of hope in the middle. The situation is not good. But it’s also not hopeless. Around the globe, there are smart, well-intentioned people driving hard for solutions to the climate crisis. The European Union is at the forefront of practical GHG-fighting legislation. Cities that you might not expect to be leaders are in fact showing the way forward–over the last 20 years, Las Vegas has cut its overall water use by 26% and its per-capita water use by 48%, all while growing by 750,000 people. Success stories are everywhere, but they’re happening at the local level, and that’s clearly where the revolution will have to come from.

In the early aughts, British Petroleum deviously promoted the idea of a personal carbon footprint, in effect putting the responsibility for change on consumers and shifting guilt onto individuals. (There’s a special place in hell for fossil fuel executives.) That’s infuriating, but here’s the truth: We are the ones who create demand. We’re the ones who choose to buy gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups, who think nothing of jumping on a cheap flight and flying across country, who buy tons of China-made crap from Amazon. Our levers are much smaller than those of government or industry, but we do have levers and we haven’t always pulled them in the best direction.

So, what to do? Over the last couple of years, I’ve been leaning on climate experts to understand how to be a better citizen, and the fact is, it’s complicated. Take plastic-wrapped produce. Plastic is bad, right? Yes, of course, but that plastic means a longer shelf life for the produce, which means less food waste, which means less methane generated in landfills. Pick any product and you’ll find the carbon calculus is much more convoluted than it first seems. But as my friend Stewart Sheppard, who works on the Higg index, says: Just do something. Anything. Just take action as best you can.

In Adventure Journal’s case, we have a long list of actions we’ve taken. One is that we don’t cover a lot of new gear, and when we do, we only cover gear that we think offers quality and durability—the kind of gear that’s an investment. We also encourage readers to maintain what they have, to buy used if they must replace it, and only buy new when absolutely necessary. We also only accept advertising from brands who take that same approach to the construction of their products.

On a personal level, climate infuses most of my daily decisions. A few years ago, when one of our internal combustion engine cars died, we replaced it with a Tesla Model 3. Now, my wife and I share the Tesla as if it’s our only car. I use my e-bike when I can and avoid driving my SUV except when I’m going to be in the dirt, which I’ve also reduced dramatically. (If the Tesla had more than five inches of ground clearance, I’d use it for everything.)

Making do with less—learning to thrive with less—is perhaps the most powerful call to action of our age.

As we recently reported, there are a lot of carbon emissions embedded in the construction of electric vehicles, and whether they’re “better” than a given ICE car is also a complex calculation. But here’s one thing that’s not complex: Every mile I travel on foot, e-bike, or by EV is another mile not fueled by the burning of oil, and it’s another mile that hasn’t enriched BP or Chevron. Every time I don’t buy something, I’m sticking it to the Man, whether that’s Jeff Bezos or the marketing weasels who dangle something cool in my Instagram feed. Making do with less—learning to thrive with less—is perhaps the most powerful call to action of our age.

There are still plenty of steps I can take. Top of the list is leaving Chase bank, the world’s number one funder of fossil fuel projects, for a local credit union. I’m not looking forward to that—we moved from Wells Fargo after its last scandal and it was a pain in the neck. But knowing some portion of my money is financing planet-destroying energy development is infuriating.

I am not naive. My actions are a drop in the bucket. But my actions times the actions of all the people who are serious about fighting climate change add up. When I committed to a plant-based diet seven years ago, there were a lot fewer vegan options in grocery stores—now, because so many people have shifted their food buying from animals to plants, there are tons more choices. We vote every single day with our purchases, and it matters: The average American household spends more than $60,000 a year in goods and services. The consumer economy is more than a trillion annually. It adds up big time.

Again, not naive. Individually, these steps don’t feel like much. Collectively, though, we have great power. And in a world where our government seems pro-profit and anti-human, we need to exercise that power. It’s a lot more effective than an “eff you” shouted into the wind.

Want to learn more about how consumption increases climate change—and how to fight it? Check out this primer from the Columbia Climate School.

Photo by Mike Marrah



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