At the Climate-Change Rubicon

The Whole Earth in Our Hands

It wasn’t long ago when we listened for decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of the United States with hope that the court’s rulings would reflect justice for all, and a jurisprudence imbued with compassion and concern for the greater good. This hope now seems misplaced, if not quaint, in light of last month’s Supreme Court ruling on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. By rendering this retrograde decision the court abrogated any semblance of impartiality in the fight against climate change.

The court’s ruling on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency restricts the authority of the EPA and other governmental agencies to limit carbon emissions in a “generational shifting way” unless Congress votes explicitly to support such action. This means that Congressional action is now needed to undo what the Supreme Court did, and to restore the government’s authority to enact and enforce regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions. Even though the EPA hasn’t been doing all that it could to reduce carbon emissions, as mandated under the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, the court’s ruling still represents a paradigm shift by reducing how effective and powerful the government can be going forward in its fight against climate change.

This and other recent decisions by the Supreme Court drives a point home that has become increasingly clear in recent times: The burden to be good stewards of the environment, and to care for the most vulnerable members of our society, falls increasingly to every individual, household, community and state. Never in our lifetimes has the well-being of the nation rested so heavily, and palpably, on our collective shoulders.

 In the documentary YOUTH v GOV—which was recently screened by Sustainable Woodstock and Pentangle Arts as part of our Climate Change and Sustainability film series—research findings make it painfully clear that the U.S. government is also complicit, having known for two generations about climate change and its potentially devastating impacts on people and the planet. Despite decades of ostensibly climate-friendly policies that were passed, and public proclamations about Federal commitments to fight climate change, behind the scenes it was often business as usual: supporting the fossil fuel industry. The facts behind this compelling and astounding account can be read in They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis by James Gustave Speth. (Stafford resident “Gus” Speth is a Fellow and former Professor of Law at Vermont Law School, and co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council.) In this context, the July 28, 2022 agreement among Democrats in the US Senate to support a spending package that contains major initiatives to fight climate change, including $369 billion in climate and energy investments, offers a glimmer of hope for action to emerge at the Federal level.   

Still, the overriding existential question that each of us now has to answer can be found in the often cited call to action that President John F. Kennedy posed during his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Although Kennedy’s call to action was intended to inspire a sense of national engagement, rather than to highlight the U.S. government’s failure to date to meet its obligations toward its citizens and the planet, it is eerily prescient in light of where our country stands today.

On a global scale—from Greta Thunberg to Xiuhtezcatl Martinez—youth activists are leading the way in the fight against climate change and the interrelated issues of injustice and inequality. Unless we, too, act with immediacy and urgency, Earth will soon cross the rubicon beyond which there is no turning back in the advance of global warming. At this critical juncture in the history of the planet, We The People are the bulwark against a rapidly warming climate. We now represent the last, best hope in our fight against climate change. 

The documentary film YOUTH v GOV recently screened in the Climate Change and Sustainability Film Series.

What Can You Do?

  • Initiate and support climate change mitigation initiatives in your local community, government, region and state.
  • Write your representatives in the US Congress, and at the Vermont Statehouse, to let them know you support legislation that will empower government agencies to enact, enforce and implement strong and immediate action on climate change.
  • Help Sustainable Woodstock’s Energy and Transportation Action Group, and our Intermunicipal Regional Energy Coordinator (Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission), in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change in Woodstock, the neighboring towns and the Upper Valley, including the ongoing development of a Regional Climate Action Plan.
  • Read the Vermont Standard “My Turn” column for a detailed list of “What You Can Do about Climate Change” in your daily life. (p.2D, October 7, 2021)


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