Kamala Harris brings record on climate change and environmental justice to Biden ticket

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Harris, who is in her first term, has used her time in Washington to call for reducing pollution in poor and minority communities that often bear the burden of environmental degradation — and to urge that those responsible be held accountable in court.

Harris will be the first Black woman and first Asian American on a major party ticket. Biden brought back his candidacy after trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) through a surge of African American support in the South Carolina Democratic primary.

By emphasizing the disparate impact rising temperatures and dirtied air has on people of color, Harris is simpatico with Biden, who in recent months has talked about how unchecked pollution is making the coronavirus pandemic worse.

Harris’s advocacy against environmental racism has extra resonance as the nation goes through a reckoning over race.

Twice in the past two weeks, Harris has introduced legislation meant to protect neighborhoods from environmental discrimination.

Teaming up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Harris proposed scoring bills in Congress on how much they may hurt poor and minority communities. She also put forward another bill that would reverse a Supreme Court decision making it more difficult for African Americans and other groups to sue under the Civil Rights Act.

“That shows she cares a lot about environmental justice,” said Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “And so does Joe Biden.”

In an updated climate plan released last month, Biden vowed to funnel 40 percent of the money meant for clean energy into historically disadvantaged areas.

Adding Harris to the ticket may help unify the moderate and liberal halves of the Democratic Party.

During her own bid for the presidential nomination, the Californian positioned herself as a liberal on climate change by pitching a plan with a more aggressive timeline than what Biden and others offered.

In the Senate, she was a co-sponsor of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, a call to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade that sparked a rancorous political debate in Washington. Her own $10 trillion plan for a clean energy transition sought to eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2030.

By contrast, Biden is pitching a $2 trillion climate plan aiming for net-zero power plant emissions by 2035 — still the most extensive climate plan ever offered by a major-party candidate.

During the primary, Harris also called for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the position she may not stress now that she is campaigning with Biden, who has not taken that position so as not to alienate voters in gas-rich Pennsylvania.

Green groups that have been wary of Biden Biden were cautiously optimistic about his vice presidential pick.

Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, which backed Sanders during the primary, said Harris “showed her responsiveness to activist and movement pressure to make climate a top priority, and demonstrated her willingness to be held accountable.”

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, which endorsed both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said “her inclusion on the ticket provides another opportunity for Vice President Biden to increase the ambition of his climate plan.”

Former vice president Al Gore, who endorsed Biden last spring, praised Harris for being a “strong advocate” for environmental justice.

Harris may be able to sand off the edges of her record as a prosecutor by emphasizing environmental justice.

At a time when some Democratic Party liberals are calling for police departments to be defunded, Harris has drawn criticism for her time as a prosecutor in California.

But her demands to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for allegedly misleading the public about the causes of climate change may endear her to party progressives.

“Let’s get them not only in the pocketbook,” Harris told Mother Jones last year, “but let’s make sure there are severe and serious penalties for their behaviors.”

During her bid for the Democratic nomination, Harris called for more resources to be funneled to the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to bring polluters to court.

Before joining the Senate, Harris served as attorney general of California, where she won an indictment against a pipeline company for the spill of approximately 140,000 gallons of heavy crude near Santa Barbara.

She also secured an $86 million settlement from the German automaker Volkswagen for cheating on emissions tests for its diesel vehicles and opposed the expansion of a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., a Bay Area city with a significant Black and Hispanic population.

Her office opened an investigation into ExxonMobil, the nation’s largest oil company, about whether it deceived shareholders and others about the risks of climate change to its business. But unlike New York and Massachusetts, California ultimately never brought a case against the company.

Harris’s home state is recognized worldwide as a leader on climate issues.

Through a series of statewide legal mandates, California began generating more power from renewable sources than from fossil fuels in 2017.

That’s something that Harris can talk about on the campaign trail as she and Biden pitch a nationwide plan for rapidly reducing emissions across the economy, said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser who is campaigning for Biden.

“Picking Harris is another clear sign that if elected Biden intends a massive clean energy investment-led recovery,” he said.

Harris will also be able to draw on her experience witnessing wildfires scorch thousands of acres of California in recent years. Much of Southern California is warming at double the rate of the continental United States, according to a Washington Post analysis last year, further fueling droughts and blazes in the state.

“Let’s recognize the connection between these disasters and climate change,” Harris said in a 2017 Senate floor speech. “We must help each other when these travesties hit, but also we must prepare for the future.”