How the Supreme Court’s EPA Ruling May Affect Your Health

  • U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down the Clean Power Plan.
  • This decision has limited the ability of the EPA to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Emissions could impact health directly as well as indirectly by worsening climate change.
  • Poor and marginalized populations are the most at risk.
  • Experts say it is important for citizens to lobby for aggressive measures to combat climate change.

On June 30, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision concerning West Virginia v. EPA. The nation’s highest judicial body struck down the Clean Power Plan (CPP), curtailing the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to promulgate cap-and-trade programs under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

These programs are aimed at reducing air pollution by placing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and creating a market for companies to buy and sell allowances for a particular amount of emissions. This gives companies a financial incentive to reduce how much pollution they are generating.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra described the move as one that “takes us backwards in time when we badly need to be making progress,” noting that the most vulnerable populations tend to be impacted the worst.

Becerra further cited the benefits of reducing air pollution, such as improving air quality, preventing premature deaths, helping people with asthma, and reducing lost school and workdays due to illness.

He concluded his statement by vowing that the Biden-Harris administration would do everything it could to protect public health and fight climate change.

Kelly Eskew, clinical professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University, said she sees two major ways limiting the power of the EPA to regulate emissions from power plants could impact health.

The first is the effect that the emissions can have on health directly.

Chemicals like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter are respiratory irritants that can worsen asthma and other lung conditions, she explained.

Additionally, smaller particulate matter can lead to higher levels of heart attacks, heart failure, strokes, blood clots, lung cancer, and Parkinson’s disease.

Eskew further cites a 2019 study in Nature Sustainability indicating that increased levels of carbon dioxide may create numerous problems, including “inflammation, reductions in higher-level cognitive abilities, bone demineralization, kidney calcification, oxidative stress, and endothelial dysfunction.”

Finally, mercury can damage the lungs, cause neurological and behavioral disorders, and harm the thyroid and kidneys.

The second way emissions can affect health is through their impact on climate.

People in urban areas where there are fewer green spaces are more likely to see temperature rises due to the heat island effect, said Eskew. This effect is created by the pavement, buildings, and other infrastructure absorbing and re-emitting heat, according to the EPA. It can potentially lead to temperatures rising as much as 7°F.

In rural areas, extreme weather events like droughts, storms, and flooding can have devastating impacts on infrastructure as well as the economy, she said.

In addition, when agriculture is affected, it can lead to food insecurity, both because there is less food available and because prices will rise.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), climate change can also influence the risk for diseases carried by fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. As temperatures rise, these organisms can thrive in areas where they would not ordinarily be found. They can also reproduce in greater numbers.

The poorest, most marginalized people are among the populations who would be affected the most, according to Catherine Kling, PhD, an environmental economist and an expert in water quality modeling who served for 10 years on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

“Low-income and disadvantaged people are less able to protect themselves from floods, excessive heat, and the many health consequences of disasters and increasing temperatures (including heat exhaustion, mental health problems, increased crime and violence, homelessness, and unsanitary living conditions),” said Kling.

Jeff Freedman, PhD, a research associate at the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, agrees, explaining that these groups do not have the resources needed to cope with rapid change. Nor are governments always able or willing to help.

“In the U.S., a large percentage of people of color and other marginalized groups tend to live in poorer urban areas with limited access to air conditioning or clean air,” said Freedman. “Climate change is making these problems worse.”

Freedman further pointed to poor communities in rural regions that are also susceptible to other climate change-related issues like long-term drought, lack of clean water supplies, coastal flooding, and extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires.

Shahir Masri, ScD, an assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment and epidemiology at the University of California, Irvine, said that, while the decision feels like a huge blow, it may not have any immediate impact on health.

“That’s because U.S. action on climate change has been at a stalemate for decades,” said Masri, “and the West Virginia v. EPA decision essentially applies only to powers that the EPA isn’t even exercising at the moment.”

“It does, of course, hand-tie the EPA in the future,” he added. “But it’s unclear if EPA’s hands would have ever been put to work, at least within the timeframe that is needed to address the climate crisis.”

Masri noted that the current decision represents an “ongoing stalemate” with the decision now being passed back to Congress to provide explicit regulation of carbon dioxide in the manner proposed by the EPA.

“If there’s anything positive to have come from the Supreme Court decision,” added Masri, “it’s that the court affirmed that greenhouse emissions are a threat to the public.”

He said it’s now up to the public to pay attention and make climate change an issue in the upcoming midterm elections.

Freedman said that, as a nation, it’s important to confront climate change aggressively.

This can be done by transitioning to a new energy economy, powered by renewable energy, he explained.

It’s also vital to enact mitigation measures like more green space, hardening of infrastructure against flooding, and more adaptable agricultural practices like less water-intensive crops and livestock.

“It’s all about scales,” he explained. “Large-scale changes need national (federal) government support. Local change is the product of people investing in their communities.”

Kling added, “The most important thing people can do to protect themselves and their families is to advocate for policy change and vote for policymakers who understand the severity of the problem and are willing to pass legislation to address the problem.”

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