The Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily halt implementation of the federal Clean Power Plan while a state challenge works its way through the courts is a short-term gain for the fossil-fuel industry and a long term loss for rural communities.
Last week the court voted to block the Environmental Protection Agency until at least June 2, 2016, from moving forward with plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation will have to wait at least until a federal court of appeals considers the states’ challenge.
Rural communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, and as such, will suffer the most while decisive action on climate change is delayed.
Rural communities are more likely to have natural resource-based economies than urban communities. Those will become less stable as climate change worsens. In addition, poverty rates are higher and housing stock is older on average in rural communities, which means that many rural residents spend a larger percentage of their income on energy costs. This will be exacerbated as heating and cooling needs increase in the face of more extreme temperatures and weather events.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the first regulation to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants in the United States, would not only address the causes of climate change. It would provide opportunities to make a transition away from the current extraction-based energy system that has historically hurt rural communities. Extractive industries like coal and natural gas harm the landscape and natural resource base. They also drive a boom-and-bust cycle that leaves rural communities with little once the extraction is complete.
A study by Headwaters Economics found that though fossil fuel extraction creates enormous wealth, most of that wealth leaves the region where the extraction occurs. In contrast, renewable energies like wind and solar do not deplete the natural resource base and are more often locally owned and controlled. Much of the country’s renewable energy production will happen in rural communities, providing an opportunity to move away from extractive industries. Last week’s Supreme Court decision perpetuates the harmful status quo and slows the opportunity for rural communities to build an energy system that retains benefits locally.
It’s often assumed that rural communities oppose action on climate change, but that narrative oversimplifies the diverse range of perspectives held in rural America. Many rural communities, such as the cities of Morris and Grand Rapids in Minnesota, are already focused on building local resilience by addressing climate change. In addition, a group of rural leaders and organizations released a policy document last year outlining priorities for addressing climate change in rural communities. The document emphasizes clean energy and community-based energy projects, as well as energy efficiency initiatives and assistance for rural communities to transition away from extraction-based economies. The Clean Power Plan is an opportunity to fulfill these recommendations, and the Supreme Court’s decision stands in the way of what many rural residents want.
On a global level, what the United States does to address climate change matters. Stalling the Clean Power Plan could weaken the collective commitments made at the Paris climate talks to lower greenhouse gas emissions around the world.
The Clean Power Plan would take a step toward slowing climate change and send a global signal that the United States is ready to act. It would also create jobs, stabilize energy prices, and offer a way for rural communities to build resilience.
The Supreme Court decision did more than delay action on climate change. It hurt the ability of rural communities to build sustainable economies that can stand up to extreme weather events.
Tara Ritter works for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on rural climate-change adaptation and promoting climate-friendly agricultural practices