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Supreme Court Stands Up for the Polar Bears | The Nation

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The Notion

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Supreme Court Stands Up for the Polar Bears

The Supremes have spoken. George, we put you in the White House back in 2000, but we can't go along with your "junk science" on global warming. We order you and your weak-spined EPA to obey the law. Do something real about the climate-change carbon emissions from automobiles that are killing the polar bears. Or, if you decide not to do so, then give us an explanation based on science, not on the latest press release from your pals at Exxon Mobil.

How radical is that? Of course, the four Corporate Justices – Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito--choked and sputtered and pounded the bench. In the majesty of the Constitution, they insisted, this issue should never have come before the court. Leave it to the Congress. In the wisdom of democratic process, the lawmakers can decide whether to side with Al Gore and a zillion anxious scientists or the good folks from autos, oil and electric utilities who pass out the checks to deserving legislators.

After the court delivered its 5-4 decision, a political hack who fronts for the car makers, solemnly announced they "look forward to working constructively with both Congress and the administration." That's a hoot. Detroit has resisted every small step forward for forty years, starting with Ralph Nader's observation that many fewer people would be killed if the companies designed more for safety, less for testosterone.

The political muscle of the Big Three (now two and a half) has fought every measure for better fuel usage and cleaner tailpipe emissions. And, sad to say, the United Auto Workers, once one of the most progressive unions, marched side by side with the companies' reactionary strategy. The US industry, one can say, planned its own demise--building bigger and bigger gas wagons because they deliver more profit per pound--while those crafty Japanese engineers at Toyota were designing better cars--better mileage, less damage to nature.

The Supreme Court's other environmental case--a slam-dunk 9-0 decision against Duke Energy--provides a cautionary tale about the prospects for achieving real progress on global warming. I don't doubt that Congress will act, at least once there is a new president. But reformers should be very wary about joining the corporates in a cooperative mode.

Some leading corporations are sincerely committed to solutions, but the trade groups and industry lobbyists really want a hand in drafting the legislation so they can build in loopholes and escape hatches--legal gimmicks they can exploit later to stall on compliance.

That's what the case against Duke Energy was about. In 1970, when the Clean Air Act was first enacted, the electric utilities industry screamed and begged for dispensation. Repairing older power plants to reduce emissions would be hugely expensive and a waste of capital. Give us a "grandfather clause" that allows us to keep operating those old plants until they become obsolete--then we will build new plants with the latest pollution-control technologies.

Congress gave them that deal, partly to round up votes from coal-producing states. The industry has proceeded to ignore the terms ever since. Over many years, EPA and the Justice Department tried to get compliance. They tightened law, they sued the companies. Duke Energy and others filed appeals, stalled and dissembled and managed political fixes at the White House or Congress.

So here we are 37 years later--still waiting for these companies to obey the law. Even the Corporate Justices have had enough. The 9-0 ruling essentially said, for god's sake, obey the damn law.

If Congress enacts carbon legislation with the same friendly approach to the well-being of the polluters, the polar bears are not saved. They will be long gone before the titans of industry have changed their behavior.

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