Among its many other tragic consequences, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may dramatically complicate the process of finding a legislative solution for the climate crisis. It now seems possible that a Democratic White House and Congress could convene in January, with a commitment to finally—after three decades of ducking—taking federal action on global warming. Indeed, after this record season of flame and gale, new polling shows that three out of four Americans blame climate change for natural disasters, and one in five are open to the idea that they may need to move in order to escape danger. But, if public pressure for action is mounting, structural obstacles may be mounting, too.
The filibuster is one such block. As long as the oil-and-gas industry remains dominant in the Republican Party, it’s hard to imagine finding sixty votes for serious climate action. But Democratic leaders seem more and more committed to ending that procedural tradition, especially if the G.O.P. insists on forcing through the confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice before next year. A lopsidedly conservative Supreme Court may be harder to overcome. Since 2007, the federal ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act has rested on a one-vote margin in Massachusetts v. E.P.A. The Court repeatedly messed with the original New Deal, frustrating FDR no end; even the most modest version of the Green New Deal would face an immediate Court challenge and, quite possibly, bleak prospects in a post-Ginsburg judiciary. It’s one issue of several that might motivate the Democrats, if they win in November, to restructure the Court; some have suggested adding new Justices. But it’s also a bracing reminder that we need strategies for rapid and sweeping change that don’t rely entirely on congressional action.
In particular, activist pressure on big oil companies may be producing a sea change in the world view of at least some of those companies. BP has promised to reduce oil and gas production by forty per cent this decade, and, last week, its C.E.O. said that 2019 may have marked peak oil demand—a scandalous break with the industry gospel of ever-rising demand. The Telegraph called the remarks a “cluster bomb” thrown into the energy debate; the Financial Times said that they might mean the “slow death of big oil.” A new academic analysis dismisses much of the industry rhetoric as greenwashing, but, at least in Europe, corporations may have little choice: new E.U. legislation would dramatically scale up the continent’s commitment to carbon reductions. And campaigners are growing savvier. As more and more big banks announce that they want their lending practices to align with the Paris climate accord, a consortium of sixty environmental groups last week laid out an analysis showing just what that would have to mean in practice: in essence, no more loans for anything that expands the size of the fossil-fuel empire. [Continue reading…]