Despite the ever growing scientific consensus about the nature and urgency of global warming, Americans remain more divided politically on the matter than at anytime in history. And the Supreme Court just made matters worse.
I’m not exactly sure why he thinks that. Yes, a 5–4 decision, with the dissent emphasizing uncertainty, illustrates existing divisions. That doesn’t make things better, and I certainly don’t plan to “herald [this] as a major event in shaping public perceptions.” The Court tends to be a fairly accurate barometer of public moods, rarely leading public opinion outright, often lagging. That’s probably as it should be. Regardless of the merits of cases like Roe v. Wade, there’s a strong argument to be made that deciding that case at that time hardened battle lines rather than letting the nation settle on a comfortable compromise.
In that sense, the decision here is not at all harmful. It establishes clear standards for action based on expert assessments of science, and neither requires nor forbids any outcome assuming that result can be reasonably justified.
While the dissenters rested their decision largely on claims of uncertainty, the majority didn’t let them get away with it. In the section on injuries suffered (which Massachusetts had to show to establish a right to sue), the majority wrote:
The harms associated with climate change are seriousand well recognized. Indeed, the NRC Report itself—which EPA regards as an “objective and independent assessment of the relevant science”—identifies a number of environmental changes that have already inflicted significant harms, including “the global retreat of mountain glaciers, reduction in snow-cover extent, the earlier spring melting of rivers and lakes, [and] the accelerated rate of rise of sea levels during the 20th century relative to the past few thousand years .…”
Petitioners allege that this only hints at the environmental damage yet to come. According to the climate scientist Michael MacCracken, “qualified scientific experts involved in climate change research” have reached a “strong consensus” that global warming threatens (among other things) a precipitate rise in sea levels by the end of the century, “severe and irreversible changes to natural ecosystems,” a “significant reduction in water storage in winter snowpack in mountainous regions with direct and important economic consequences,” and an increase in the spread of disease. He also observes that rising ocean temperatures may contribute to the ferocity of hurricanes.
This does not deny that uncertainty exists, but the majority rejects the claim that we cannot act without complete certainty:
Nor can EPA avoid its statutory obligation by noting the uncertainty surrounding various features of climate change and concluding that it would therefore be better not to regulate at this time. If the scientific uncertainty is so profound that it precludes EPA from making a reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, EPA must say so.
In other words, there is a difference between noting uncertainty and saying that the uncertainty is too great to act upon. We deal in this sort of uncertainty all the time, and understand it on a practical level. Boston Police got egg on their face by “defusing” LED based advertisements for Aqua Teen Hunger Force a few months back, but we can all appreciate that they’d rather get the mockery of Adult Swim fans than have a disaster on their hands. They probably knew there was a good chance they weren’t dealing with a bomb, but preferred to err on the side of caution.
The severe and irreversible nature of the changes climate change is likely to cause puts them into the category of risks that are worth addressing before they become certain. Is this the “better safe than sorry” framing?