We know that climate science expertise plays an indispensable role in governmental decision making to reduce greenhouse gases. Yet an implied shift of power to judicial bodies like the US Supreme Court needs to be objectively identified and discussed, particularly to avoid unjustified contestation of climate science. The risk is that climate opinion is creeping toward an equal footing with climate science — and can lead to devastating consequences for humans and the planet.
The editors of Scientific American describe in a recent opinion piece how “the promise of democracy is being sorely tested” by recent judicial decisions, including those that concern the planet. Among other rulings in the past few weeks, the US Supreme Court has ignored the scientific evidence that underlies the need to halt climate change. Their determinations have put industry and special interests above facts. They have devalued the role of expertise.
Slowly Dismantling the EPA’s Climate Crisis Power
The editors of Scientific American relate how the US Supreme Court has broken with established modes of scientific assessment, choosing instead to frame judicial opinion as a form of problem-solving through interaction, not rational analysis.
“In stripping power from the EPA to help power plants mitigate their carbon output, the majority justices again said evidence doesn’t matter, science doesn’t matter. Our planet is warming. Coal is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in the world. Taking regulatory power away from the EPA now puts states in charge of slowing climate change. Piecemeal efforts will not yield the reductions we need to slow warming. Federal action, as part of global efforts, is the necessary solution to this problem. And climate change is a public health issue. An increase in ferocious winter storms, unbearable heat, damaging rain and wildfires—these all affect the health and welfare of people in the United States. The science is clear on this: we have to act now, and the Supreme Court made those actions harder.”
The reasons for the gap between climate experts and lay climate change skeptics — as exemplified by the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court — are multifaceted. Among accepted causations, political ideology is the most pressing factor that leads to question the actual intention of “scientific elites” — even as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which have been derived from a consensus among its member governments and thousands of scientists and experts, inform international policy and negotiations on climate change.
Yet, while the IPCC has become the privileged speaker — successfully disseminating knowledge to government institutions and rendering the climate crisis as a pressing political issue calling for multilateral solutions — it has also been critiqued for failing to generate and formulate knowledge in ways that resonate with society and spur policymakers into action.
Why has Climate Opinion Become a Judicial Norm?
Chief Justice John Roberts has referred to the “sociological gobbledygook” of research and is one of the conservative justices who “have spouted misleading scientific claims,” according to the editors of Scientific American. Justice Amy Coney Barrett has said, “I’m certainly not a scientist.”
No, most of us aren’t scientists. Then again, it’s not necessary to be a scientist or mathematician to make good decisions and judgments about the climate crisis due to the vast amounts of evidence available. But that didn’t stop the US Supreme Court conservative judicial majority from ruling against separation of church and state in a case that now forces Maine to fund schools that teach children misinformation about evolution and climate science.
“Disregarding science and evidence is a terrible shift for the highest court in the land,” the Scientific American editors state. Highlighting that “expertise matters,” the editors call out the Justices who fail to be self-reflective enough to know when they have a gap in knowledge and fail to seek information to fill in those gaps — the quality that “makes for better justice.”
“This shift away from our social responsibilities for health and welfare is one that we fear will lead to needless suffering and death,” the editors explain. “We urge the Court to change its reasoning—to value statistics, to value research, and to understand how ignoring it in making decisions is contrary to common decency and their responsibility as jurists to the people of the United States.”
As with every level of government, there is no requirement that the US Supreme Court factor science into their decision-making. The recent judicial trends away from climate science and toward climate opinion reimagine climate issues through the lens of selective usable knowledge. Rather than serving the needs of those impacted by climate change, this approach is haunted by what Coen in Climatic Changecalls earlier Euro-American conceptions “whose meanings were molded by the historical processes of industrialization and imperial conquest.” Today’s courts seem wary that climate scientists are a “rarefied cadre” to be held at arm’s length.
The effect is that climate opinion gets equal time to climate evidence — it’s a way of assuaging a conservative social status quo. This trend to acknowledge and respect oppositional climate opinion is a shadow beacon of further judicial rulings that fail to tackle climate crisis awareness and environmental protection.
Usable science becomes usable only in favorable political contexts. Our judicial system is at risk of becoming a tool of protectionist intervention, of a system that endows responsibility to fossil industry viability through new interpretations of precedent. Conservative rhetoric now promotes the idea that useful science depends on dispensing judicial decisions that impose fossil industry constraints according to a hierarchy of perceived assigned merit.
We’ve come to a moment in time in which, if you are a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, you have “the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people hanging on your every opinion,” according to the editors of Scientific American, “and you owe it to us to use the data that science painstakingly compiles when handing down your decisions. We must not become the dystopian future so much science fiction has warned us about. Let evidence rule judgment.”
The current judicial trend to accept selective, usable climate science alters the very meaning of research and evidence. We need judicial bodies that engage in critical efforts to evaluate climate policy implications and garner an enhanced understanding of different climate science criteria on the part of all role players. We need a heightened application of climate science recommendations and a dismantling of fossil industry lobbyist manipulation.
The majority conservative US Supreme Court has become a body of constitutional purists when it suits their ideology. The result is a judiciary that ignores climate science and evidence when it suits them on a case-by-case basis.
“The United States once inspired other countries to protect people’s liberties,” the editors at Scientific American remind us. “Now the rest of the world is watching and reacting to the decisions that our Supreme Court made this term. And it’s not good.”
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