nuclear power plant

What the Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. the EPA ruling means to public health

SPH expert Assistant Professor Jesse Berman weighs in on how the EPA’s inability to effectively reduce carbon emissions will have an impact on climate and health.

Martha Coventry | July 1, 2022
jesse berman
Assistant Professor Jesse Berman

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court curbed the ability of the EPA to regulate dangerous carbon emissions across the U.S. power sector. Instead, the agency must go through Congress to address problems at individual plants, a move that Associate Professor Jesse Berman says “will cause chaos” and make it unlikely for the U.S. to meet its targeted greenhouse gas reductions. Berman is an expert on the health effects of climate change and answered questions about why this ruling has wide national and global public health repercussions.

Q. How do coal-fired, electricity-producing plants contribute to climate change?

BERMAN Power plants that burn fossil fuels naturally produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a well established greenhouse gas, as a byproduct. Without reduced emissions in this sector, we will have continued buildup of this gas in our atmosphere. As a result, our climate becomes increasingly hotter, more erratic, and one prone to natural disasters, such as floods, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, hurricanes, and storms that produce a month’s rainfall in a few hours.

Q. What are the drawbacks of giving decision-making powers to Congress?

BERMAN Taking away the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions will result in weaker, less scientifically justified decisions, and the consequences will be felt for generations. The EPA makes air quality recommendations after extremely rigorous and careful review of the latest scientific knowledge, including input from expert panels with hundreds of years of combined expertise. These panels and EPA officials base their input on the best scientific data, and not personal opinion. There is great concern that elected legislators, who are not typically experts in this very complex scientific field and have a great deal on their plate, are unlikely to go through this same careful and thoughtful evaluation process. The fear is that decisions will be driven by short-term politics, rather than sound science.

Q. What will this ruling mean from a public health standpoint?

BERMAN U.S. carbon emissions are major contributors to global climate change, which is expected to increase global temperature by a few degrees. That increase often elicits a shrug and a comment about, “Not minding winters being a bit warmer…” However, this is a misconception. Global climate change will result in intense regional fluctuations that are not spread evenly across a year. Hotter annual temperatures might be driven by multiple extreme heat waves in the middle of the summer that kill crops, sicken people, and stress our power grid. Or in the Midwest, we may experience a rapid winter thaw that produces flooding on frozen ground, shuttling away our water and causing a drought the following spring. Areas with formerly good air quality may be impacted by wildfires burning a thousand miles away from us. We anticipate a wide range of health effects resulting from climate change and no person or population will be untouched. Unfortunately, the worst of these effects will not be felt now, but in the future. So, it is our children and grandchildren who will be affected the most by these decisions made today.

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