Opinion: SCOTUS is turning up the heat on climate change

by Bethany Cotton, Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands
Originally published in The Register-Guard, July 31, 2022

Adequately describing just how destructive the last 10 days of the Supreme Court’s term was for our democracy, constitutional rights and the work to address and adapt to climate change is a murky task. The court’s disastrous spring term makes several things clear, not least of which is that we cannot rely on a group of nine people in robes to save our democracy or our climate. Indeed, the court has morphed into one of the greatest threats to civil rights and a livable future.  

For the first time in history, last month the court stripped the people of a constitutional right, denying bodily autonomy to half of Americans. The language in the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade imperils other fundamental rights as well: the right to marry who you love regardless of race or gender identity, access to contraception and all freedoms grounded in the right to privacy. This dangerous suite of opinions includes a decision undermining the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate climate pollution from power plants. Marginalized people and communities will bear the brunt of the malicious impacts of these decisions as they are disproportionately affected both by lack of access to health care and climate impacts. 

As legal historian and law professor Mary Ziegler writes, the Dobbs decision “shows that the Supreme Court reflects and reinforces the dysfunction and ugliness of our politics — and does so at a time when faith in democratic institutions is already fraying.”  

As an attorney, I used to believe that the court was an important, relatively apolitical check on executive and legislative power. Decisions like 2015’s Obergefell affirming the right to gay marriage gave me hope that the arc of the moral universe did indeed bend toward justice, sometimes with the help of the Supreme Court. If that were ever true, it certainly is not today. We must cease to rely on powerful people in unaccountable lifetime positions to safeguard our rights. We must rescue ourselves by acting at the local, regional and state levels. 

While we Pacific Northwesterners join most of the country in coping with another scorching heatwave — many of us without access to air conditioning — we should recognize that this will be the coolest summer for the rest of our lives. We are experiencing the consequences of climate inaction now. More dithering from our representatives — like certain Eugene City Councilors who insist they are climate champions yet vote against proposals to address climate change — will only lock in hotter summers, higher wildfire risk, ocean warming and other climate impacts that threaten our communities, health and wild places.  

It’s time for the City of Eugene to pass robust ordinances requiring new buildings to be all-electric. It’s essential for the state to distribute air conditioners and air filters and roll out the $25 million electric heat pump incentive program approved in 2022 legislative session with all possible haste. And it’s imperative that we end logging of our remaining mature and old growth forests — our region’s greatest climate defense. We must act to safeguard our rights and the planet, including locally. Our future depends on us all doing our part.   

Born, raised and educated in Oregon, Bethany Cotton is an environmental attorney and the Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands, cascwild.org. She’s a regular contributor to The Register-Guard.