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Has the Supreme Court tied the Biden administration's hands on climate change?


The Biden White House now has a significantly narrower path to slowing climate change. In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to set carbon emission limits specifically for existing power plants. The high court's conservatives say such efforts with vast economic and political impacts have to come from Congress. So where does the court's ruling leave the Biden administration? Gina McCarthy is a former EPA administrator and is now the White House national climate adviser, and she joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

GINA MCCARTHY: Thanks for having me, Rachel. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: Do you see it this way? Has the court tied your hands on climate change?

MCCARTHY: No, the court hasn't tied our hands on climate change. But the decision they made was a narrow one, but it sent some clear signals about where this Supreme Court is heading. And after Roe v. Wade, it's not surprising, is it? You know, basically the way I look at it is that, you know, it was a very disappointing decision, but it did not strip away the ability of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. For once, we've gone past the questioning of whether climate change is real, which is always good news. But it also sent, you know, I think, a clear signal that they're going to be looking at regulation with an eye towards turning our country backwards instead of allowing us to move forward where the world is heading, which is to address climate change and to make sure that we're moving as fast and as far as we can on our clean energy transition.

MARTIN: When he took office, President Biden pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas pollution in half by 2030. Can you still make good on that promise?

MCCARTHY: Sure. We're going to make good on that progress. Look, the Supreme Court took away our ability under 111 to do work without additional burden.

MARTIN: Explain what 111 is.

MCCARTHY: But EPA has - I'm sorry, that's the section of the Clean Air Act. But it did not take away EPA's ability to regulate. And more broadly, people should understand that this president didn't come into office thinking that EPA was the sole way in which we could move forward on climate change. He made this effort a whole of government effort. He recognized that special interests for decades have been funding fossil - funded by fossil fuel companies to really wage a long-term campaign to strip away - and they have for decades - all these environmental protections that keep our water and our air clean. And this should not have been unexpected to see a decision like this. But that's why the president said we're not just going to rely on EPA. We're going to have a whole of government approach.

MARTIN: What does that look like?

MCCARTHY: And we're not just going to regulate. We're going to invest. And that's what's happening. It looks like the entire administration being part of this effort. You know, we are leaving no stone unturned to look at our ability to transfer and to invest in a clean energy future. And that looks like working with the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, NOAA and other agencies to make sure that offshore wind can thrive. And when you do that, offshore wind provides more than $2.2 billion in private investment to move offshore wind. And it's moving.

MARTIN: So the goal is not to...

MCCARTHY: The president just...

MARTIN: You can't - the focus is now on alternative energy sources, less on reducing carbon emissions. Is that what I hear you saying?

MCCARTHY: Well, what happens is when you move towards clean energy, you actually in - by nature and by law, you are shifting all of the investments to clean energy. I'm not suggesting...

MARTIN: So it's incentives instead of punitive measures through regulation.

MCCARTHY: Well, there's two ways to do it. You move forward in the direction you want to head, and you make sure you don't slide backwards. This was a decision which limited our ability to reduce pollution under that section of the Clean Air Act, and it literally threatens to use the same technique in others. In that we have to be disappointed in that and concerned. And - but that doesn't mean EPA won't regulate pollution. It doesn't mean that EPA isn't standing ready right now to move forward with regulations that will drive down greenhouse gas pollutions, whether we do it directly or through other measures like tackling other pollutants that always are married with greenhouse gases when they're emitted. But - and we're certainly going after methane and HFCs directly, which are major superpollutants.

We have plans in place. We have resources to spend. We're moving forward with the bipartisan infrastructural investments to actually move forward and advance our efforts on clean water, getting lead out of the water system. So there's lots of things going on. The Supreme Court narrowed our ability to get that done, but it didn't take away our ability both to reduce pollution that's causing greenhouse gas emissions and it in no way precluded us from looking at how we move forward on the transition to clean energy. So it's not one or the other, Rachel. It has to be both. We have to get rid of the old, and we have to move forward to the future. It's offshore wind.

MARTIN: Gina McCarthy.

MCCARTHY: It's offshore wind. It's solar. It's lots of great opportunities ahead for good jobs...

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there.

MCCARTHY: ...And lower costs for families.

MARTIN: We appreciate your time.

MCCARTHY: Thanks so much, Rachel.

MARTIN: Gina McCarthy, White House national climate adviser, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 30, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous web introduction to this report incorrectly said the Supreme Court's ruling effectively prevented the EPA from setting carbon-emission limits. The ruling limits that ability.