View profile

Refugia Newsletter #18 by Debra Rienstra: processing the SCOTUS ruling on the EPA, some new creation songs, and reveling in Michigan summer

Debra Rienstra
Debra Rienstra
Hello, friends. Welcome to the Refugia Newsletter, a fortnightly newsletter for people of faith who care about the climate crisis and want to go deeper.
This week: processing the SCOTUS ruling on the EPA, some new creation songs, and reveling in Michigan summer.

Refugia News
I leave the country for three weeks, and the whole place falls apart. At least that’s how it feels today, as I try to understand the recent SCOTUS rulings and their implications. (More on West Virginia v. EPA below.)
I am happy to report, though, that our three-week sojourn in England and Scotland featured good visits with friends and miraculously fine weather. The excuse for all this travel–an academic conference in Cambridge–proved to be a rich time of scholarly nerding-out among a small and gracious group of literary folk. Delivering my 20-minute academic paper on George Herbert (and Ovid, if you must know) went very well, thank you.
But I’m back, and I’ve hit the ground running, presenting at a Creation Justice Ministries event, attending a Third Act Faith online meeting, and diving right back into The Work.
From the Scottish coast in Galloway. Yes, we suffered through it.
From the Scottish coast in Galloway. Yes, we suffered through it.
We arrived home in time for the first swamp milkweed blooms in our backyard refugium.
We arrived home in time for the first swamp milkweed blooms in our backyard refugium.
This Week in Climate News
Oof. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for climate work. The SCOTUS ruling on West Virginia v. EPA came down on Thursday, and the responses are pouring in. Honestly, we knew this was coming. But now it’s here and we have to deal. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to summarize it for you even as I try to understand it all myself.
For now, from what I can discern, we might summarize the decision in three ways:
  1. The decision itself: could have been worse.
  2. The long term implications: very bad.
  3. What’s next: “Be the Backlash.”
First, what happened. The basic question was this: When Congress creates an agency, like the EPA, how much power do they actually have? The answer now is “less than before.” The case itself was a challenge to the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions for power plants in West Virginia. It was brought to the court by a cadre of Republican state attorneys general hoping to avoid regulations on fossil fuel emissions. In a 6-3 decision, the majority ruled that–as Maxine Joselow summarized in the Washington Post“the EPA lacks the authority to make sweeping changes to the nation’s power sector without explicit approval from Congress.”
The court majority used the “major questions” doctrine to defend this decision. The idea is that an executive branch agency can’t address a “major question”–like where power comes from in our power sector–without Congress’s explicit approval. More on that in the section below.
Some analysts are noting that the decision could have been worse.
In a shorter article (linked below), Joselow quotes Cara Horowitz, a professor at UCLA School of Law. While Horowitz acknowledges that the decision limits the EPA’s power to act, she notes that it still “preserves large swaths of EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases across a range of sources…. In some ways I’m actually relieved. With this court we were bracing for almost anything, so this could have been worse.”
3 takeaways from the Supreme Court's big climate ruling - The Washington Post
Deeper Dive
OK, lots of deep diving to do here. Actually this will all still be relatively shallow diving. But here we go.
First, let’s follow up on the “could be worse” point. Climate writer Amy Westervelt reiterated this point in a Tweet thread and referred to her article in Drilled News outlining all the avenues still open for climate action even with this ruling.
Nevertheless, as many environmental activists are lamenting, this ruling makes the climate fight much harder. It will result in throwing at least some of the regulatory burden to states, some of which are on the job and others of which will resist with every fossil-fuel-inspired fiber of their legislatures and courts.
So here’s the “very bad” part: The long-term implications of the ruling are the continued dismantling of the federal government’s regulatory apparatus. Congress outsourced the expertise needed to enact environmental policy to the EPA in the 1970s. But now Congress or the states are supposed to get into the weeds and make their own decisions on the scientific intricacies of emissions levels? There are good reasons to create regulatory agencies. What will this mean for all the rest of them?
There are some problems–like, say, global climate change–that we really need federal government muscle and dedicated experts to help address. But this ruling is part of a deliberate effort on the part of the SCOTUS super-majority to support a government-shrinking agenda. Well, at least on certain issues; notably not on others, as the recent ruling on guns proves. Harvard Law professor Richard Lazarus helpfully comments on the folly of this in the Washington Post. And historian Heather Cox Richardson patiently explains the broad issues in her newsletter.
As for the whole “originalist” posture on the Supreme Court: As a literary scholar, I’m here to tell you that originalism is a bogus hermeneutical principle for authoritative texts, especially texts like the Constitution (or the Bible) from which we derive guidance for our lives. Originalism is based on two shaky premises: 1) that we can reliably know what the original authors intended, and 2) that their intentions are determinatively relevant to a world they could not possibly imagine. Moreover, originalism is inevitably applied unevenly and hypocritically; it is a fig leaf to cover naked protection of power. As Elaina Kagan wrote in her scathing minority opinion on West Virginia v. EPA:
“The current Court is textualist only when being so suits it…. When that method would frustrate broader goals, special canons like the ‘major questions doctrine’ magically appear as get-out-of-text-free cards. Today, one of those broader goals makes itself clear: Prevent agencies from doing important work, even though that is what Congress directed.”
So much more to say about the recent SCOTUS rulings. As people of faith, we have huge work cut out for us. How do we reclaim public rhetoric to get past the horribly reductive culture wars, the howling inconsistencies of our divisions, the toxic hypocrisies of defending “life” in some ways and most decidedly not in others?
But as we stew and analyze, we also have to ask: what now? For those of us committed to addressing the urgent crisis of climate change with every possible tool, including reasonable federal regulation, we have to focus on the fact that SCOTUS’s recent rulings all fly in the face of hefty majorities in public opinion. The majority of Americans want federal climate action, gun control, and protection of women’s right to choose. As Bill McKibben writes, these hugely unpopular rulings provide an opening to public backlash at the polls. Can we leverage this moment?
Be the Backlash! - by Bill McKibben - The Crucial Years
Refugia Sighting
Whew! All right, time for something different, eh? Let’s put the spotlight on some good people doing good work. The Porter’s Gate is a collaborative of musicians with a mission to create new worship resources for the church. I mentioned in newsletter #9 that they were coming out with an album of creation songs, and the album is now released. I’ve asked husband Ron, Professor of Preaching and Worship Arts at Western Theological Seminary and expert in all things worship-related, to write up a few comments on the album. Take it away, Ron…
Climate Vigil is now available everywhere you stream music, and it overflows with wonderful, singable new songs for congregational worship. 
There are songs of praise for the wonders of creation; confession and lament for what is being lost; and prayer and inspiration for action. The album explores these themes in a range of musical styles while successfully avoiding cliché in its praise, sentimentality in its lament, and irresponsibility in its intercession
Highlights for me include “All Creatures Lament,” a haunting riff on the beloved hymn text by St. Francis with the familiar tune transposed into a minor key. Also “Where Were You,” a rendering of the famous passage from Job 38 in which God finally answers Job. In response to God’s “where were you” verses, the song replies in our own human voice: “I don’t know, / but in the whirlwind of my weakness, O my God, / I hear you speaking, / and when I think of all your secrets, / I shake and rejoice.”
The album is now my go-to gardening music. Porter’s Gate will be releasing a resource guide (sheet music, devotions, sermon-starters and more) eventually, which will make it even easier to use these songs in particular ministry contexts. More information here.
(Thanks, Ron!)
All Creatures Lament (feat. Fernando Ortega & Molly Parden)
The Wayback Machine
I saw many gorgeous land- and seascapes on my recent travels to Alaska and the UK. But it was so good to return to Michigan. Hope you don’t mind if I rhapsodize about Michigan a bit here today. As I remarked about the many Michigan-centric passages in Refugia Faith: “I wrote about Michigan not because it is more special or important than anywhere else but simply to model what it looks like to root more consciously into one’s home region.” And, of course, “to give some writerly love to our freshwater dunes.”
Here’s a piece I wrote in 2017, kind of an essay-poem hybrid, to celebrate the delights of Michigan in the summer. I hope are able, even in these fraught days, to relish some of the gracious delights of your own home place this season.
To Love Michigan in Summer - Debra Rienstra
Thank you!
Thanks for reading! I keep these newsletters quickly scannable, with opportunities for deeper reading as you are able. I also tend to emphasize the connections between faith communities and climate action.
You can send me a response to this newsletter simply by replying to the email that brought it to you. If you are so inclined, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook @debrakrienstra. You can always contact me on those platforms, too. Also check out my website at
If you like this newsletter, please share with others!
Did you enjoy this issue? Yes No
Debra Rienstra
Debra Rienstra @debrakrienstra

A fortnightly newsletter for people of faith who care about climate and want to know more and do more.

In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Created with Revue by Twitter.
Prof. Debra Rienstra, Calvin University, 1795 Knollcrest Dr SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49546