Much of the focus on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination hearing for the Supreme Court has rightly been focused on her virulently anti-abortion stance and whether she would overturn Roe v. Wade. But over Tuesday and Wednesday, a weird climate thread also emerged in her hearing, namely whether she accepted climate science.
Barrett, as she has with topics ranging from abortion to whether there should be a peaceful transfer of power, dodged answering questions. But the dodges themselves paint a picture of what Barrett, the Federalist Society that backed her, and Senate Republicans who will almost certainly vote her onto the Supreme Court want: control, concentrated in the hands of a small group of wealthy extremists.
Climate was always going to be a backseat issue at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, but it’s taken on surprising prominence and led to some of Barrett’s most outlandish responses. On Tuesday, Republican Sen. John Kennedy raised climate with her. Kennedy himself is a climate denier with a lifetime score of 4% on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard, so it was a rather weird moment all around. In response to Kennedy, Barrett pulled out the “I’m not a scientist” chestnut and said, “I would not say I have firm views on it.”
This is a bizarre thing for a grown adult to say, but things only got more outlandish the next day. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked her whether she agreed humans are causing the planet to heat up (they are), to which she said she couldn’t opine on it and ended by saying, “I don’t think that my views on global warming or climate change are relevant to the job I will do.” (They will be, and we’ll get to that in a bit.)
Sen. Kamala Harris walked Barrett through a series of questions about if coronavirus was infectious and smoking causing cancer, both of which Barrett agreed were facts. Then Harris asked her about climate change, which Barrett hemmed and hawed on before saying it’s a “contentious matter of public debate.”
This is soft climate denial that should be wildly disqualifying for a lifetime appointee to the Supreme Court. A judge’s job is to consider evidence. There are mountains of it showing that humanity is causing climate change, built on more than a century of research. Not having a “firm” view on it reflects poorly on Barrett’s judgment. But more damning is her labeling it a “contentious matter of public debate.”
Again, mountains of evidence shows this isn’t true; a vast majority of Americans accept the reality human activity is responsible for climate change. Yale and George Mason polling shows deniers and those dismissive of climate science make up just 18% of the U.S. population. This is only a matter of “public debate” for a far fringe of American society that unfortunately includes a majority of elected Republican officials and, apparently, their new Supreme Court nominee. The reason climate is even up for “debate” in the first place is because Big Oil and fossil fuel-aligned groups have spent decades pushing climate denial to uphold their monopoly on how the economy is fueled. Organizations opposing climate change had operating budgets of more than $1 billion per year in the 2000s. Barrett’s father himself was a long-time lawyer for Shell, which means their family directly benefited from the misinformation campaign.
Barrett accepting that fringe as a sign of valid debate is an absolute disaster-in-waiting for the climate. But it also neatly reveals how the worldview of her and her conservative backers fits together. Simply put, it is that a small group of rich corporations aligned with religious extremists should define the terms of public life. It reflects a view similar to evangelical Christian pastor John McArthur, who has espoused that climate change is fake and that God created Earth as a “disposable planet” to be used up to the last drop.
Barrett, the conservative justices, and their monied backers’ views and interests are wildly out of step with Americans not just on climate, but access to abortion, the Affordable Care Act, and holding polluters accountable. It also explains why Republicans are rushing Barrett’s nomination, with electoral defeat appearing likely (though not even close to a given). Her lifetime appointment, as HuffPost’s Alex Kaufman notes, “represents minority rule” for potentially decades to come.
The threat of seeing Roe v. Wade overturned interlocks with the threat of seeing landmark climate decisions overturned. This includes Massachusetts v. EPA, which determined the federal government could regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Extremist groups have used climate and abortion as wedge issues to help Republicans maintain power in elected office. With their wedge becoming less useful than it once was, the Supreme Court has now become the easiest avenue to impose their will.
They want to control women’s bodies while also controlling what fuels the economy at the expense of the global public good. As the climate spins out of control, the Supreme Court could well be the deciding factor on how far it spins, whether fossil fuel companies pay for damages they knowingly caused, and what protections Americans are afforded in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Barrett could also end up being a deciding vote on a case involving Shell and cities seeking money to pay climate change-fueled damages, according to original reporting from the Daily Poster, as well as an appeal over the youth climate case that could eventually end up on the court’s docket.
The court is poised to become a rubber stamp for the powerful that could overturn precedent and undo decades of progress while simultaneously screwing future generations around the world. Climate change will define American life in the coming decades, just as it is beginning to define this one, and it affects the poorest among us the most. Barrett’s argument that she doesn’t have to understand climate change as part of her job shows how little she cares about those lives and points to an alignment with those who will profit off the cause of suffering while living largely insulated from the impacts.