Ruling on its first case involving global warming and climate change, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do qualify as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The case of Massachusetts v. EPA came about because Massachusetts and a group of states, local governments, and private organizations petitioned the court to intervene because the EPA had declined to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The plaintiffs asked the court to answer two questions about the EPA and the Clean Air Act. The questions involved “whether EPA has the statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles; and if so, whether it’s stated reasons for refusing to do so are consistent with the statute.”   

The states and other groups argued that the EPA’s lack of regulation of greenhouse gases was causing them injury by making the climate change problem even worse. This meant that in the long term rising sea levels could cause a state like Massachusetts injury. The EPA argued that the plaintiffs were not injured by their decision not to regulate auto pollution as a greenhouse gas. They also argued that it didn’t matter if they regulated because any U.S. decreases will be offset by increases in places like India and China.

The court said that it didn’t matter how remote or far off the risk on injury was. All that matters is that there is a risk of injury from the lack of regulation.  The court concluded that the EPA did have to regulate automobile pollution, because greenhouse gases met the statutory standard for classification as air pollution. It also found not regulating these gases would cause injury to the plaintiffs.

The Justices didn’t buy what they termed the EPA’s “laundry list” of reasons not to regulate. “Instead, it has offered a laundry list of reasons not to regulate. For example, EPA said that a number of voluntary executive branch programs already provide an effective response to the threat of global warming, that regulating greenhouse gases might impair the President’s ability to negotiate with “key developing nations” to reduce emissions, and that curtailing motor-vehicle emissions would reflect “an inefficient, piecemeal approach to address the climate change issue.” The ruling is huge because it knocks down the Bush administration’s rationale for doing nothing about global warming.

The Supreme Court was only looking at the statutory elements of this case, but one of the immediate outcomes of this ruling is that we should finally see a raising a fuel efficiency standards within a year. The ruling is also important because it is the first time that a branch of this federal government has officially acknowledged the climate change problem, and has legally ruled that agencies such as the EPA have a statutory duty to treat greenhouse gases like the other types of air pollution that they regulate. All I can say is that it is about time that the U.S. joins the rest of the world in at least admitting that there is a problem here.

You can read the full court decision here.

Jason Easley is the editor of the politics zone at  His news column The Political Universe appears on Tuesdays and Fridays at

Jason can also be heard every Sunday afternoon at 1:30 pm (ET) as the host of The Political Universe Radio Show at
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