It appears to be of no concern to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ultraconservative majority how children are collateral damage in its monumental rulings to close the 2021-22 term.
First, the conservatives struck down New York’s requirement for gun owners to prove why they should be allowed to pack heat in public. The ruling ignored, among many practical realities, that bullets are now the top killer of children.
Then, in overturning Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to an abortion, they not only denied a pregnant person’s right to their own body, but they also ignored the fact that children born to mothers who are denied abortions face a 3-in-4 chance of being raised in poverty.
Now comes the court’s crippling of the most important federal weapon available to avoid catastrophic climate change and its associated killing of tens of thousands of Americans every year with fossil fuel air pollution. The Supreme Court sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to slash carbon pollution from power plants. The justices told EPA that it can set carbon emissions standards based only on interventions at individual power plants. It cannot do what it tried to do under the Obama administration—establish national standards for coal-fired power plants under its Clean Power Plan. That plan would have cut plants’ emissions by shifting to cleaner energy sources.
In siding with coal companies and a posse of Republican attorneys general (not coincidentally, the same ones who generally represent the most gun-happy states rushing to ban abortion), the Supreme Court metaphorically threw children under the tailpipe and into the smokestack.
In a craven denial of climate impacts amid the political influence of oil, gas and coal companies, the court put children in the firing line of fossil fuel pollution and climate change, rather than rescue them from harm’s way.
The Supreme Court is ignoring the science on health
The harms of pollution and a hotter planet were reinforced earlier last month by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Nine months ago, NEJM and a total of 200 health journals called for “emergency action” on climate change ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The talks ended with no serious agreements and carbon dioxide levels soaring to new records.
In response, NEJM launched a special series of studies and analysis on climate change and air pollution that is already killing nearly 9 million people a year globally. The leadoff articles in the series included a commentary from Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown University environmental law professor, who crafted the victorious brief in the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision where the Supreme Court said the EPA had the authority to regulate global warming gases. She wrote that a ruling against the EPA could have “dire” consequences for “the control of risks related to public health and the environment.”
Another leadoff article detailed the effect of fossil fuel pollution on children, co-authored by Frederica Perera, director of Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Kari Nadeau, director of Stanford University’s Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. They cited United Nations data and reports showing that nearly every child in the world is at risk from at least one climate hazard, and 1 in 3 live with at least four overlapping climate and environmental “shocks,” including air pollution, water scarcity, vector-borne diseases and severe heat, storms, and drought.
The data are overwhelming
When it comes to environmental hazards, air pollution is by far the most common, with 90 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion children living with high levels.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco and the University of Washington last year found that particulate exposure was associated with nearly 6 million premature births and nearly 3 million low birth weight babies around the world in 2019. Even in the highly-resourced United States, particulate pollution triggers 16,000 preterm births a year, according to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the United States a Black baby is 50 percent more likely to arrive in a preterm birth than a White or Hispanic baby.
Air pollution, as Perera and Nadeau wrote, is linked in studies to asthma, anxiety, depression, and long-term intellectual disabilities.
“The data are compelling that the toll on children and pregnant women from fossil fuel-driven climate change and air pollution is large and growing,” the researchers wrote.
The data is so compelling, Perera and Nadeau could not detail it all, particularly the extensive studies detailing the harms caused by fine particulate matter.