A Story You Might Have Missed – A Climate Activist and the Supreme Court

Amidst coverage of the French election cycle and the ongoing war in Ukraine, an important domestic story fell through the cracks of media coverage. Mainstream networks gave very little attention to Wynn Bruce, a 50-year-old environmental activist who passed away after setting himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court on April 22nd. Bruce’s decision to directly implicate the Supreme Court in his action acknowledges the decisive role the institution has played in striking down and denying any meaningful climate change reform.

Climate change presents one of the most significant challenges for this generation. Already, data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates an increase in global heat waves, global heavy rain, and global droughts. In 2020, disasters augmented by rapid climate change displaced 31 million people from their homes. The U.N. estimates that it will shave “11 to 14 percent off global economic output by 2050.” Coastal areas in the United States have significantly suffered from the increased intensity and frequency of natural disasters.

The climate activist set himself on fire to protest the Supreme Court’s inaction on climate change. His tragic death was that of self-immolation, a protest practice of setting oneself on fire, one of the most extreme demonstrations that could be imagined. Self-immolations in the past jump-started the Arab Spring, reprimanded the American war in Vietnam and criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. This form of protest is reserved for the gravest atrocities due to its fatal nature. Perhaps most significantly, in 2018, David Buckel self-immolated in Brooklyn to similarly bring attention to climate change, leaving the following statement for media outlets:

“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

The Supreme Court has constantly limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency and sided with giant fossil fuel companies to deny efforts to mitigate climate change. In the 2021 case, B.P. P.L.C. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, the court sided with B.P. Oil, arguing that Baltimore lacked the jurisdiction to override federal environmental provisions. In the 2000 case, United States v. Locke, the court’s decision after the Exxon Valdez oil spill prevented Washington State from issuing regulations on oil tankers in state ports. For the party so concerned with federalism and states’ rights, the Republican Party and its justices have consistently weaponized executive power when needed to prevent any meaningful reform to climate change.

The court is set to rule on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency this term, a case based on the Trump administration’s repeal of the 2015 Clean Power Plan, which questions whether the E.P.A. can regulate greenhouse gas emissions in virtually any industry. It is unclear how the ruling will go. In past cases, Justice Samuel Alito has recused himself due to his significant stocks in powerful oil companies, likewise to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, for her father’s prominent role at Shell Oil. Nonetheless, given the 6-3 conservative majority on the bench and previous rulings to restrict executive power, it seems likely that the Supreme Court will gut the power of the E.P.A.

It is no surprise that media outlets largely ignored Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation, as they’ve similarly done with the existential threat of climate change. By siding so often with fossil fuel companies, striking down executive action on climate change, and being so heavily influenced by fossil fuel giants, the Supreme Court bears significant responsibility for the past, present, and future harm that unchecked environmental destruction will cause the United States.