High School Essay Contest

Congratulations to the winners of the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review’s 2019 High School Essay Contest!

Prompt: Global warming, the current climate ‘apocalypse,’ and the feasibility of policies like the Green New Deal have dominated the contemporary media focus. Notably, lawyers and advocates in the current administration have taken to either defending or fighting against “alternative facts.” How can this legal battle be reconciled with the ostensibly scientific character of climate change? To answer this question, please incorporate a Supreme Court case that was decided since 2000 which you believe impacts the modern decade’s fight for, or against, environmental justice. Explain why you agree or disagree with the Court’s decision. Using court precedents, opinions, and legal analysis, explain in what direction this legal fight will continue, and why.   

First Place

“A Post-Alternative Fact World:The Supreme Court and the Fight for Climate Change”

by Siddarth Pinnamaneni

Runners-Up

“The Injustice of Inaction: Examining Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Effect on Environmental Law and the Direction of the Court”

by Ritvik Mahendra

“The Climate Change Battle”

by Sukham Sidhu

A Post-Alternative Fact World: The Supreme Court and the Fight for Climate Change

By Siddarth Pinnamaneni

As resource wars intensify and natural disasters escalate, a mere eleven years separate humanity from the irreparable effects of climate change.[1]Over the past decade, an emerging grassroots movement has amplified the message of both environmentalists and the scientific community - climate change is not only real, but worsening.[2]Consequently, on the global stage, the discussion of climate change has been coated with a sense of urgency; since 2016, 197 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, an international framework established to “combat climate change and adapt to its effects.”[3]Domestically, however, the fight for environmental justice has largely flatlined.[4]With partisanship and misinformation corrupting the political landscape, federal and judicial actors are effectively paralyzed: unable to enforce environmental legislation even when it is needed most. Within the next decade, climate change may complete its evolution: one from a legislative afterthought to a materialized catastrophe. The ability of courts to correctly interpret the law - even in the face of partisanship and “alternative facts” - will be pivotal in stopping this transformation. 

Since the turn of the century, discrepancies between federal agencies and the people have widened with respect to environmental policy. Consequently, the judicial branch has served as a critical adjudicator in the discussion of climate change. The last decade - a period where opinions have learned to charade as facts - is perhaps most significantly shaped by the landmark 2007 Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. Before the Court, the plaintiffs, a coalition of states and cities, argued for the proper and enforced regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s initial strategy was to hide under the guise of misinformation. Armed with the fiscal support of corporate global warming skeptics, the EPA presented its case: the link between greenhouse gases and human health was simply an “unsupported notion.”[5]The Supreme Court, as the highest arbiter of the law, was thus given a twofold task: more than its usual role of assessing a constitutional clash, the Court was forced to wade through a jumble of “facts” to determine the validity of the proposed climate regulation. The federal judiciary, in this instance, likened much more to a scientific think tank shaped by the political pressures and national expectations of an information-driven society.

After careful deliberation, the Court reached its verdict: a narrow and controversial 5-4 decision in favor of the plaintiffs. Instantaneously, the lawsuit became a mandate for its own agenda: the clear and enforced regulation of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act.[6]Specifically, the decision coerced the EPA to surrender its long-standing argument that “greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles contributes so insignificantly to [climate change].”[7]Yet the most impactful consequence, one starkly representative of the relationship between judicial partisanship and the obscurity of facts, was the apparent division among justices along party lines. In the aftermath of the decision, each justice was found to be “even more sharply split over foundational principles of the regulatory state than they were before.”[8]As “left-wing” justices aligned with the desperate need for constitutional regulation and “right-wing” justices struggled to resist legislative expansion, the Court broadly degraded its own role as an unprejudiced actor. Amid this political polarization, the legal battle isolated Justice Anthony Kennedy as a pivotal swing vote in “the struggle between these two camps.”[9]In retrospect, the case stands as a reminder of the fragile political balance of one of the most influential political institutions in America. 

Within the next decade, the climate change movement will be shaped heavily by misinformation, youth activism, and partisanship. This trend is already seen in the pending Supreme Court case, Julianna v. United States, which is slated to shape how modern social and legal activism will unfold. Known informally as the “climate kids” case, the lawsuit epitomizes the shift towards younger demographics in the fight against climate change. The case was filed on behalf of around 21 plaintiffs, ranging between the ages of 11 and 22, who seek to defend their right to a stable climate system under the definition of a public trust.[10]In contrast to Massachusetts v. EPA, the plaintiffs now aim to discuss climate change “in a venue where alternative facts and misinformation can no longer play a role.”[11]In a world oversaturated with information and communication channels, “alternative facts” are set to dominate mainstream climate change discussions. In response, the Supreme Court, fulfilling its role as a non-partisan arbitrator, will be asked to resolvethe factual incongruencies in Julianna and beyond. 

Granted, the current state of the union - nothing short of partisan warfare - makes it likely that Julianna v. United Stateswill be most heavily shaped by the divided political bias of the Supreme Court. Accounting for the political composition of the Supreme Court - especially with the recent additions of conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh - the lawsuit is currently projected by Court observers to be dismissed.[12]This prediction aligns with a flurry of anti-environmental policies enacted under the Trump administration, such as the repeal of offshore drilling regulations.[13]Perhaps more frightening is the plausibility that a dismissal of Juliannamay still result in a majority conservative Roberts Court using the lawsuit as an opportunity to revisit the regulations established in Massachusetts v. EPA. A pivotal choice is inevitable: the Court must either reassess the “alternative facts” originally presented in an attempt to limit the scope of the Clean Air Act or reaffirm a landmark environmental case allowing for the regulation of greenhouse gases. Given the Court’s political leaning, the fate of American climate goals may hinge on the ‘disputable’ facts determined in Massachusetts v. EPA.[14]

            With the upcoming 2020 election cycle, voters, and by extension presidential candidates,  will undoubtedly fixate upon the scientific nuances of climate change. Yet if the prior decade’s legislative and judicial fights provide any precedent, misinformation and partisanship represent major obstacles to constructive discourse over the national dilemma. Thus, the Supreme Court, given its relative ability to reassess constitutional precedents, will figure as an instrumental actor transforming discourse about climate change from a fight over information and regulation into a concrete plan to reduce emissions. 

 
Sources:

[1]Watts, Jonathan, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.” The Guardian, 8 Oct 2018, 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-

warns-landmark-un-report.

[2]Braun, Stuart, “Grassroots set to drive 2019 climate action as climate change deniers take center stage.” Deutsche Welle, 18 Jan 2019, 

https://www.dw.com/en/grassroots-set-to-drive-2019-climate-action-as-climate-change-deniers-take-center-stage/a-46998790.

[3]“The Paris Agreement.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 22 Oct 2018,https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

[4]Dunlap, Riley, “At 40, Environmental Movement Endures, With Less Consensus.” Gallup, 22 Apr 2010, 

https://news.gallup.com/poll/127487/environmental-movement-endures-less-consensus.aspx.

[5]Herro, Alana, “U.S. Supreme Court Deliberates Monumental Global Warming Case.” Worldwatch Institute, 2006, 

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4763.

[6]Herro, Alana, “U.S. Supreme Court Deliberates Monumental Global Warming Case.” Worldwatch Institute, 2006, 

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4763.

[7]“Massachusetts v. EPA.” Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, 2 Apr 2007, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/05-1120.

[8]Percival, Robert, “Massachusetts v EPA: Escaping the Common Law's Growing Shadow.” University of Maryland School of Law, 2008, https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/fac_pubs/540/.

[9]Percival, Robert, “Massachusetts v EPA: Escaping the Common Law's Growing Shadow.” University of Maryland School of Law, 2008, https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/fac_pubs/540/.

[10]Pearce, Fred, “Can Citizen Lawsuits Force Governments to Act on Climate Change?” Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 1 Nov, 2018, 

https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-citizen-lawsuits-force-governments-to-act-on-climate-change.

[11]Geiling, Natasha, “Young people suing the Trump administration over climate change won’t stop until they get a trial.” Think Progress, 5 Feb 2018, https://thinkprogress.org/youth-climate-lawsuit-trial-date-february-6490ae01e5f0/

[12]Pearce, Fred, “Can Citizen Lawsuits Force Governments to Act on Climate Change?” Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 1 Nov 2018, 

https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-citizen-lawsuits-force-governments-to-act-on-climate-change.

[13]Clark, Brian, “A running list of how President Trump is changing environmental policy.” National Geographic, 3 May 2019, 

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/03/how-trump-is-changing-science-environment/

[14]Kormann, Carolyn, “The Right to a Stable Climate Is the Constitutional Question of the Twenty-first Century.” The New Yorker, 15 June 2019, 

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-right-to-a-stable-climate-is-the-constitutional-question-of-the-twenty-first-century