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Climate change heads for the Supreme Court

Politics, science and the law

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear the arguments in the case of Massachusetts vs the Environmental Protection Agency.

The suit, brought by Massachusetts and eleven other states, along with a few cities and environmental lobby groups, accuses the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of failing to regulate CO2 emissions from motor vehicles.

The legal action was brought after the EPA denied a petition asking it to intervene and set limits on vehicle emissions in 2002. It argued that it had no obligation to regulate CO2 emissions. It must oversee gases that represent an "endangerment to public health and the environment", but said that CO2 did not necessarily fall into this category.

Eighteen scientists filed a "friend of the court" brief arguing that the court had "misrepresented the findings in Climate Change Science", a 2001 report. The brief says the court used selective quotes from the report to suggest that the science on climate change is uncertain.

Professor John Dernbach of Widener University Law School's Harrisburg campus, one of the four lawyers who worked on the brief, told Patriot News: "EPA really blew the science" because it ignored the findings of the main scientific source it quoted.

"This is not about differences in emphasis, choice of details, or nuance," he told the paper.

This isn't the first case of its kind. Almost a year ago a New York judge ruled the question of pollution regulation too political to be decided by the judiciary. This case, known as New York vs the EPA, was asking the court to force the EPA to regulate emissions from power plants in five states.

The judge in the case wrote: "Were judges to resolve political questions, there would be no check on their resolutions because the Judiciary is not accountable to any other branch or to the people."

New York immediately said it would appeal. But because of the similarities between the two lawsuits, the New York case is now on hold, pending the Supreme Court's ruling on the Massachusetts vs the EPA case. ®

Nature.com has posted a Q&A style discussion of the case that makes for interesting reading. You can find it here.

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