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Clouds are seen above The U.S. Supreme Court building on May 17, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Let the Science Show: These Supreme Court Decisions Are Deadly for People and Planet

This month's Supreme Court decisions pushed science from the sidelines all the way back into the locker room.

This month, the Supreme Court of the United States rescinded the constitutional right to abortion, made it easier to carry concealed guns in public places, and sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate heat-trapping emissions from power plants. There is clear and copious scientific evidence showing that these rulings will put people’s lives and the health of our planet in danger.

We can't allow ourselves to be discouraged. Too much is at stake.

My colleagues and I blogged about the West Virginia v. EPA case in February, when it was heard. As a climate expert, that’s within my wheelhouse and I wouldn’t typically weigh in publicly on abortion rights or gun violence. But watching SCOTUS make it more difficult to protect public health and safety, I feel an obligation as a scientist and advocate for science-based decision-making to use my platform and privilege to speak out. Here’s what the science shows about this month’s SCOTUS rulings.

SCOTUS gun decision will contribute to an increase in violent crime

At issue in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc. v. Bruen was whether officials in New York could require people wanting to carry a handgun in public to apply and evaluate their cases before their right to carry is granted. New York was one of eight states with such a law on the books, whereas dozens of states (and Washington, D.C.) have right-to-carry laws that issue a permit to carry firearms in public to anyone who lawfully owns a handgun.

SCOTUS has made it easier to carry guns in public, yet the scientific evidence shows that right-to-carry laws are positively correlated with increases in overall violent crime. In fact, researchers from Stanford and Columbia University found that within a decade of adopting such laws, violent crime rates increased by an average of 13 to 15 percent across more than 30 states. And that’s despite those states investing more heavily in prisons and police than states that do not have right-to-carry laws.

The SCOTUS decision renders New York’s law unconstitutional and has implications for similar laws in several other states, including California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. In these states, it’s likely to become easier to carry firearms in public. Assuming the past is a predictor of the future, that could have implications for rates of violent crime. That said, several states are trying to figure out ways to respond to this ruling and the fight continues.

SCOTUS abortion decision will harm women and families

By ruling in favor of Dobbs in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and rescinding the federal right to an abortion, SCOTUS overturned 50 years of legal precedent affirming the right to receive an abortion in the United States. While the case itself concerned a law in Mississippi, the court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade opens the door for individual states to enact total or near-total bans on abortion, and many states are acting quickly to do so.

Science tells us these actions will harm the wellbeing of women and families.* Abortion access is a critical component of women’s and family health. Women who seek and are denied abortion are more likely to experience physical or psychological violence and more likely to live in poverty years after the denial than those who receive abortions. Unintended or unwanted pregnancies are more likely than planned pregnancies to result in low birth weight and preterm birth, which can have lifelong health consequences. Being born from an unwanted pregnancy also increases the risk that a child will experience neglect and psychological or physical aggression.

Recent research also shows that US states with more restrictive abortion laws exhibit a 7 percent higher rate of maternal deaths after adjusting for factors such as poverty, unemployment, and state-level Medicaid spending.

Eliminating the constitutional protection of abortion-access rights also hurts low-income women and women of color—and other people who can become pregnant—more because they typically have fewer reproductive choices than other women.

SCOTUS regulatory decision will curtail action on climate change

Today, SCOTUS sharply limited EPA’s ability to address climate change through power plant carbon emissions standards. Those regulations are critical to our nation’s efforts to tackle climate change (and we’re already dangerously behind what the science shows is necessary).

At issue in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency was the scope of authority EPA has to regulate heat-trapping emissions from power plants. In 2007, the Supreme Court found that heat-trapping emissions are covered by the Clean Air Act, and in 2009, EPA issued associated endangerment and cause or contribute findings, identifying that heat-trapping emissions threaten the health of people and the environment and that specific sources (first vehicles, later stationary sources including power plants) contribute to this endangerment. In an 8-0 decision for American Electric Power Company vs. Connecticut (2011), the Supreme Court reaffirmed EPA’s role in regulating carbon emissions from power plants.  

By ruling in favor of West Virginia—actually a group of plaintiffs that includes multiple attorneys general from fossil fuel states as well as actors in the coal industry—SCOTUS is suddenly now severely curtailing that authority. That’s very bad news for our country’s plans to cut heat-trapping emissions and address climate change; but it could also set a dangerous precedent that limits the ability of federal agencies to incorporate the latest science into many regulations beyond those affecting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The power sector in the US is responsible for 25 percent of the country’s emissions. The science tells us that reducing emissions from this sector is a critical step toward economy-wide emissions reductions, and that emissions reductions are generally easier to achieve in the power sector than in sectors such as agriculture and transportation. Reducing emissions from the power sector also enables us to use clean electricity rather than fossil fuels to power our homes, buildings, and vehicles, driving emissions even lower.

The US must reduce power sector emissions if it is going to meet its obligations to the rest of the planet. Globally, failing to reduce emissions by about 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and to net zero by 2050 will make it nearly impossible to limit future warming to 1.5°C, a level above which climate change impacts are expected to become dire.

The justices sidelined science

The science is clear:

  • Permissive laws allowing people to carry firearms in public increase violent crime.
  • Restrictions on abortion access harm the health and wellbeing of women and families.
  • And failing to regulate heat-trapping emissions will harm people and ecosystems worldwide.

Science was not at the core of these cases and it is not the court’s role or responsibility to adjudicate science. But this month’s Supreme Court decisions pushed science from the sidelines all the way back into the locker room.

When science makes clear what the implications of a decision will be, it can and must be better reflected throughout the judicial process.

As advocates for science in all aspects of governing, we must recognize what a huge blow this is to our side.

And yet, we can’t allow ourselves to be discouraged. Too much is at stake.

Let’s take this opportunity to regroup in the locker room and come back out onto the field with stronger strategies and fiercer roars, and as a cohesive team determined to right these wrongs.

*People identifying as women are not the only people who experience pregnancy. While I would normally use the more inclusive term “pregnant people,” the studies I refer to in this post studied are referred solely to women, so I use “women” here to accurately reflect the population that was studied.


© 2022 Union of Concerned Scientists

Kristy Dahl

Kristina Dahl is a climate scientist who designs, executes, and communicates scientific analyses that make climate change more tangible to the general public and policy makers. Dr. Dahl holds a Ph.D. in paleoclimate from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Cambridge and Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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