On Thursday, the supreme court of the United States struck down the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, sharply limiting the federal government’s ability to fight climate change.
With Earth’s temperature rising steadily, with the scientific community shouting at the top of its lungs for more aggressive action, with fires and hurricanes pushing entire regions beyond the bounds of human habitability, the court’s Republican-appointed supermajority has chosen to actively inhibit our ability to respond to the crisis. The decision was in keeping with the Republican party’s deepening climate nihilism: as the train careens off the rails, they strangle the conductor, destroy the brakes.
Though it’s been subtext since the advent of Maga, it is worth stating plainly what this ruling makes obvious: there is a death drive animating the modern conservative movement. It is merciless and strange and remarkably consistent. It stands on the side of whatever makes our country poorer, greedier, less safe and more desperate. It deregulates firearms after a massacre at an elementary school. It deregulates carbon after experts issue a “code red for humanity”. It forces mothers to bring their children to term, and then abandons those children to bullets, to wildfires, to grinding, generational poverty. Its pro-life policies seem to reverse precisely at the moment of birth. When it comes to living children, conservatism is a pro-death movement.
After the court gutted the EPA, conservative leaders celebrated it as a win for democracy. Mitch McConnell argued that it had given “power back to the people” by wresting climate policy from the hands of “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats” and investing it in Congress alone. The irony could not be more acute. Nevermind that “the people” – 60% of Americans by one recent estimate – actively support the EPA regulating carbon emissions. Nevermind that the decision was issued by an unelected, unaccountable court with no claim to democratic legitimacy (the Republican supermajority having taken shape over an era in which Democrats won the popular vote in eight of nine presidential elections).
The point is that Mitch McConnnell has spent decades systematically eroding Congress’s ability to legislate – not just on climate, but on almost anything at all. With the court deferring to Congress, Congress hog-tied by the filibuster and the White House stripped of its main administrative recourse, control of our nation’s climate policy falls to exactly those conservative donors – many with ties to the fossil fuel industry – who helped drive the nomination and confirmation of the current Republican bench. They are the only people on the planet who profit from seeing it burn. Their interests are in perfect opposition to those of the public. And when it comes to the most consequential challenge of the 21st century, the supreme court they hired is clearing a path for them to rule by default.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this as pure, self-dealing avarice. To at least some of the conservative stalwarts who spent decades orchestrating the decision, it represents a sincere vision of the good. The richest people in the world, loosed from the bounds of expertise, oversight or electoral accountability, imposing their will on a prostrate public. It is a clean, satisfying system. It activates something deep in the amygdala, a slavering, animal need for dominion.
This is the animating spirit of the court’s decision: an old ethic of might makes right, something much closer to Friedrich Nietzsche than to Jesus Christ. Nietzsche famously referred to Christianity – with its exhortations to mercy and selflessness –as a slave’s religion. Justices Alito, Barrett, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Roberts, and Thomas appear to have agreed. Why let the meek inherit the Earth, when you can make so much money burning it?
Their nihilism has left the rest of us, the proverbial meek, increasingly desperate. Our ability to maintain a safe climate now rests on the Democrats passing clean energy investments through Congressional budget reconciliation. They only have about five weeks left to do it. This will be the defining moment of Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s political careers. They cannot waffle. They cannot get distracted. They cannot take two weeks to digest the ruling. Their best people should be working around the clock to land a climate deal that can pass the Senate.
In the glare of history, failure on climate will overshadow any other fact about their tenure. Let’s hope they feel the heat as much as we do.
Daniel Sherrell is the author of Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World (Penguin Books) and a climate activist