Now that business leaders have had time to absorb the enormity of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Clean Power Act, they face a pressing issue: With the government now restrained in what it can do to impact climate change, what can businesses do on their own?
It’s an urgent issue. The court’s decision substantially limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, wildfires are burning through California and other western states. Experts say the western United States is currently experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, is at its lowest levels since 1937.
This comes after a record-breaking year in 2021 in which the United States experienced 20 weather or climate disasters that resulted in 688 direct or indirect deaths and about $1 billion in damages. They included:
- A heat wave across the western United States (an event that has recurred in 2022 across a wider part of the country)
- Four tropical cyclones (including Hurricane Ida)
- A winter storm that led to massive power outages in Texas and other parts of the country
- Floods in California and Louisiana
- Wildfires across Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington
- The Midwest derecho (another has hit Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota already in 2022)
Health officials predict that poor and marginalized communities will suffer the most from extreme weather events. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the court’s decision “takes us backward in time when we badly need to be making progress.”
An Overview of the Court’s Decision
A string of decisions this summer on gun control, abortion and the environment clearly announced that the conservative majority plan to make this an activist Supreme Court. In terms of the case ruled on in June – West Virginia vs. Environmental Protection Agency – the court’s conservative members sided with the coal industry.
West Virginia, as well as 19 other states, utilities, and coal mining companies, sued the EPA to stop it from putting in place a measure from the Obama Administration that would direct coal power plants to either reduce production or subsidize alternate forms of energy. The lawsuit blocked the implementation of that order. The court’s decision not only kept the EPA from enforcing that directive but also limited the EPA’s ability to issue any directives that attempt to cap carbon emissions.
Essentially, the Supreme Court found that only the U.S. Congress, not the EPA, can issue directives that steer states away from coal and to other energy resources. That’s little comfort to environmentalists who watched this summer as Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, refused to support President Joe Biden’s climate policy package after months of negotiations. Manchin has since agreed to a new compromise deal that supporters say will reduce carbon emissions by 40%, but critics point out the compromise calls for the leasing of millions of hectares of federal land for oil and gas extraction.
The Impact on Health and the Climate
Scientists and medical professionals warn that the impact of the court’s decision is profound. The first impact likely will be felt on individual health. Without reducing emissions, more chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are in the air. These respiratory irritants can worsen asthma and other lung conditions.
Smaller particulate matter also can lead to higher levels of heart attacks and failure, strokes, blood clots, lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
A 2019 study on the health risks associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide reported that preliminary evidence indicates a possible association between higher levels of carbon dioxide and conditions such as inflammation, a reduction in higher-level cognitive abilities, bone demineralization, kidney calcification, oxidative stress and endothelial dysfunction.
Poorer communities will feel the effects the most because they have a limited ability to protect themselves from events such as floods or heat waves. In addition to potential respiratory issues, they are more likely to experience issues associated with climate change, including health exhaustion, increased crime rates, homelessness and mental health problems.
What Companies Can Do
While the Supreme Court said that only Congress has authority to create public policy on how power is created in the U.S. that doesn’t mean private companies cannot take steps on their own.
For example, Johnson & Johnson (a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company) has committed to 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025. The company also plans to have all its facilities powered by renewable energy by 2050 (they’ve already done so in 35% of them).
Big Four accounting firm EY (a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company), headquartered in London, also has committed to making changes that improve sustainability. A recent sustainability report from EY Sweden reported that their new Stockholm office is LEED Platinum certified, a designation that indicates the building meets the highest levels for energy savings and eco-friendly standards.
EY Sweden also has taken steps to reduce business travel, use a higher percentage of recycled materials for the office and reduce the amount of electricity used in the office.
Dow (ranked No. 15 on Diversity Inc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) announced the first net-zero emissions ethylene and derivatives complex in the world. The company also has 85% of its products in reusable or recyclable packaging and has invested $50 million into environmental impact funds, recycling infrastructure and the circular plastics economy.