To Honor RBG and Protect Our Planet, the Senate Must Wait to Confirm Her Successor

In many upcoming cases, federal courts will issue rulings on whether the federal government can take action to combat the climate crisis, and to what extent. A new justice could tip the scales.

supreme court, climate change, amy coney barrett, ruth bader ginsburg
A “Step It Up” climate change rally in April 2007. (Rob Baxter / Flickr)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy cannot be easily captured. She spent her nearly 27 years on the Supreme Court influencing much of how our nation views gender equality, voting rights, health care, climate action and so much more.

On the climate crisis, Justice Ginsburg played a crucial role in deciding one of the most important environmental cases our country has ever seen. In 2007, Ginsburg, siding with the majority in Massachusetts v. EPA, empowered the EPA to address pollutants driving climate change. In the 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that carbon pollution and other climate pollutants are covered by the Clean Air Act, and that the agency must regulate these pollutants if there is evidence that they endanger public health (Spoiler: They do). 

Ginsburg’s environmental legacy ensured our nation would be that much closer to fulfilling the promise and intent of the Clean Air Act—rather than leaders merely promising we’ll have crystal clean air and water. 

But Massachusetts v. EPA was far from the final case on climate that the Supreme Court will review. In fact, in many cases to come—including some in the next few months—federal courts will issue rulings on whether the federal government can take action to combat the climate crisis, and to what extent.

Right now, the courts are weighing challenges to the weakening of tailpipe pollution standards for cars and trucks, efforts to eliminate safeguards to prevent oil and gas wells from polluting our air with the deadly climate pollutant methane, a rollback of limits on carbon pollution from dirty coal-fired power plants, and the gutting of protections from mercury and other toxic air pollution.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Even the effect of Massachusetts v. EPA is at stake; a new justice could tip the scales, hampering the ability of the EPA to safeguard our communities from carbon dioxide and other pollutants driving climate change.

The government’s ability and responsibility to protect our clean air is not the only thing at risk if the Republican party is able to force their extremist nominee through; in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court will decide whether or not to strip health care away from millions by striking down the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

supreme court, climate change, amy coney barrett, ruth bader ginsburg
A February 2017 rally in support of the Affordable Care Act. (Ted Eytan / Flickr)

If the ACA is struck down, communities of color and other at-risk Americans stand to lose the most from this ruling; they face higher uninsured rates compared to white Americans, while disproportionately bearing the burden of air pollution, being hit first and worst from the health impacts associated with climate change, and bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis

Our environment and efforts to address climate change are very much at stake with the current Supreme Court vacancy. If the Supreme Court cements Donald Trump’s legacy, vulnerable communities will be put at greater risk, millions more will be exposed to dangerous pollution, while we all risk losing our healthcare coverage on a whim.

It is critical that we have a Court that recognizes the importance of protecting public health, the science on climate change and the importance of  precedents like  Massachusetts vs. EPA.

That’s why the American people deserve an opportunity to weigh in with their vote on the fate of the Supreme Court. Earlier this week, a new poll found that 74 percent of American voters want the Senate to prioritize COVID relief over confirming Trump’s Supreme Court pick. With so much on the line, the Senate cannot rush this process to confirm Justice Ginsburg’s successor. And with our health and environment at risk, we cannot afford for the Senate to deny the will of the American people.

You may also like:


Courtney Hight is the Director of Sierra Club's Democracy Program.