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The Accidental Environmentalists

April 3, 2007

It appears the Supreme Court is also drinking the Kool-aide with yesterday’s landmark decision Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. In short, the Supreme Court decimated the primary legal argument supporting Dick & Company’s strategy for refusing to stem the tide of global warming here in the United States — greenhouse gas emissions do not constitute air pollution under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court clearly and unequivocally stated that the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., carbon dioxide).

The current administration derides the effect of the Court’s decision by mockingly stating that it will take the two years left of W’s term for the EPA to promulgate regulations effectuating the Court’s decision. But the victory is much greater than a set of regulations. It is a moral and legal boost for an environmental issue that should not be mired in partisan politics.

In my last column I referenced the power of imagery to the nascent environmental movement. But the environmental movement would not have made the tremendous strides in the 1970’s and 1980’s if it were not for the boost it received by landmark judicial decisions by another set of Supreme Court Justices.

There is no doubt that many of the Justices, past and present, care deeply about the environment. But there are few peers to Justice William O. Douglas, who died in 1980. One of the biggest procedural hurdles that environmental and citizen groups faced in the 1970s and 1980s was gaining the right to be heard in court, also known as standing. Justice “Wild Bill” Douglas was a maverick in his approach to standing, an issue that divided the Court in yesterday’s Massachusetts v. EPA.

In 1972, in the case Sierra Club v. Morton, Justice Douglas dissented 35 years ago from the Court’s denial of the Sierra Club standing to prevent the destruction of an area near the Sequoia National Park by arguing quixotically that natural resources, such as rivers and beaches, should have standing to protect themselves from human neglect.

-Mark K. Dowd

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