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What the end of Chevron doctrine could mean for the fight against climate change

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a precedent-changing Supreme Court term. One of the key takeaways for those who are worried about the rapidly warming planet is that it will be harder for the government to do anything about that. NPR's Nathan Rott has been covering the environmental ramifications of the Supreme Court's decisions for NPR's climate desk and joins us now. Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so what particular decisions are we talking about when it comes to climate change? - because the Supreme Court did a lot this term.

ROTT: Yes, they did. OK, so there were three in this term that could all have big impacts on the broader environmental landscape. One really limits the power of federal agencies to implement laws, and we'll get into that in a little bit.

CHANG: OK.

ROTT: But first, Ailsa, is just kind of a framing exercise. One of the things I repeatedly heard talking to lawyers and legal experts on both the right and the left was that the decisions we saw in this term are part of a broader trend. Here's Cara Horowitz, an environmental law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

CARA HOROWITZ: So it's less any single decision that came out last week that's keeping me up at night, and it's more this very obvious trend of hostility toward environmental regulations and the administrative state more generally that I think is making it really hard to tackle new and emerging threats like climate change.

ROTT: And making it really hard for environmental regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Fish and Wildlife Service to deal with other issues like biodiversity loss or air and water pollution.

CHANG: Wait, so explain that. How so, exactly?

ROTT: Well, I don't know if everyone knows this. Maybe you do, Ailsa. But this - pretty much every environmental regulation that is issued is challenged in the courts. And when you have a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that struck down, in recent years, everything from power plant emission standards to protections for more than half of the country's wetlands, it makes it harder for regulators to write federal rules that will withstand judicial scrutiny.

CHANG: Exactly. OK, so what decision in this most recent term do you think will have a real lasting impact?

ROTT: The end of Chevron deference - there's no doubt about it.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROTT: So for the last 40-some years, the government has operated with this understanding that if a law like the Clean Air Act is vague, the courts will defer to government agency expertise to fill in those gaps.

CHANG: So-called Chevron deference.

ROTT: Exactly, Chevron deference - so this is hugely important when it comes to environmental statutes because most of the environmental laws in this country are old, right? They were passed in the 1970s and were purposely written vaguely so agencies could respond to new threats. Eric Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, says the Supreme Court completely upended that deference.

ERIC SCHLENKER-GOODRICH: They're essentially saying that Congress needs to speak absolutely clearly about something, and that sounds sort of good at one level, but it really hamstrings the effectiveness of government to account for emerging problems.

ROTT: Which includes climate change, but also plastic pollution or forever chemicals.

CHANG: Yeah. OK, so then what should we expect now?

ROTT: So yeah, I've heard from environmental groups and conservative law firms that we could see a torrent of challenges to new and old regulations, especially since the Supreme Court also expanded the statute of limitations for challenging federal regulations on Monday. I talked to Damien Schiff at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocated for the end of Chevron before the court's ruling, and he said, getting rid of deference would be valuable, especially at the lower court level where most environmental law decisions get made.

DAMIEN SCHIFF: This helps groups, say, on the left, as much as it helps groups on the right that, when they challenge government action as abusive, I think it'll be a lot easier to have their arguments heard in an unbiased manner.

ROTT: Schiff says a government agency should not get deference in the courts because agency lawyers are essentially acting like anyone else's lawyers, right? They're trying to convince a judge that their interpretation of the law is correct.

CHANG: OK. Well, then does this shift put more of an impetus on Congress to, like, update old environmental laws to more directly tackle issues like climate change?

ROTT: Absolutely, Ailsa. That is the solution. But this has been one of the least productive congressional bodies in history. Climate change, as you well know, has become politicized, and the science is extremely clear that to prevent the worst-case climate scenarios, the world needs to act now.

CHANG: That is NPR's Nathan Rott. Thank you so much, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.