In choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden put a spotlight on two key elements of his climate policy: environmental justice for minority communities and accountability for the oil and gas industry.
Harris, who will be the first Black woman to run on a major political party’s presidential ticket, only last week sought to affirm her commitment to communities of color in the climate battle—and progressives in the Democratic party—by introducing climate equity legislation. The California Senator teamed up with Green New Deal avatar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on the effort, an outreach to the climate activist community that Biden hopes to energize behind his candidacy.
During her presidential run, Harris also frequently advocated for the federal government to take legal action against fossil fuel companies for their legacy of climate pollution. It’s another stance that resonates with many climate-focused voters, even though, as California’s attorney general, she did not go as far as other state law enforcers in pursuing litigation against the industry.
Certainly, many factors beyond climate change will decide Harris’s value to the Democratic ticket, including her ability to win over voters in states beyond California. How she handles critiques of her past work as a prosecutor will be important, especially amid the national reckoning on race and law enforcement, and how well she stands up to President Donald Trump’s attacks will be critical, as well.
But the environmental community is an important constituency that analysts believe Biden must activate to put together a winning coalition. He took an important step toward that goal last month with a greatly expanded $2 trillion plan, developed with input from advisers to his primary rival, Bernie Sanders. By bringing another rival, Harris, aboard as vice president, Biden chose a candidate already tested in the campaign spotlight with a record and profile for action on environmental issues that is winning the team praise throughout the activist community.
“A true environmental champion,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, noting that Harris has had a 91 percent pro-environmental lifetime voting record on the LCV scorecard (that’s better than Biden’s lifetime score of 83 percent). “Senator Harris has been a long-time champion for climate action and environmental justice….We know she will continue the fight for a more just solution to the climate crisis.”
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, an environmental group that would like to see Biden’s recently expanded climate platform go even farther, also had praise for the choice of Harris.
“Senator Harris’ commitment to environmental justice and her desire to hold corporate polluters financially and criminally accountable for their destructive behavior is a welcome sign,” Pica said. “We hope her inclusion on the ticket provides another opportunity for Vice President Biden to increase the ambition of his climate plan and cements climate justice and climate equity as a priority for their administration.”
‘There Has Been No Accountability’
Harris brings a record on climate issues that dates back to her time as San Francisco’s district attorney, when she created that office’s first environmental justice unit in 2005. As California attorney general, she confronted the fossil fuel industry by opposing Chevron’s proposed refinery expansion in Richmond, a majority Black and Hispanic city that has waged a long battle against pollution at the Chevron site.
Harris also sued the Southern California Gas Co. over a massive methane blowout from an underground storage facility on the outskirts of Los Angeles, citing the climate threat posed by the uncontrolled emissions of the super-potent greenhouse gas. The blowout was the largest known natural gas leak in U.S. history. The case was settled three years later, after Harris’ departure for the Senate, in an agreement that some environmentalists criticized as inadequate.
As California attorney general, Harris lent her support to a coalition of 17 Democratic attorneys general who vowed in 2016 to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate change. The group—AGs United For Clean Power—was formed in the wake of disclosures that oil giant ExxonMobil had understood the magnitude of climate change for decades yet went on to mislead the public about the catastrophic consequences.
During one primary debate last year, Harris said, “I have sued ExxonMobil,” but in fact, she never did. (The attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts took Exxon to court—with the company successfully defending itself against the New York charges and still in litigation with Massachusetts.) Harris’ campaign spokesman at the time said that she meant that she investigated the company.
But as a presidential candidate, Harris was consistent in her call for accountability from the oil and gas industry over liability for their past actions on climate change. “Let’s get them not only in the pocketbook, but let’s make sure there are severe and serious penalties for their behaviors,” she told Mother Jones, in an interview last year on the campaign trail.
At a CNN Town Hall on climate change, she said as president she would direct the Department of Justice to launch an investigation of the companies. “They are causing harm and death in communities. And there has been no accountability,” she said.
Hungry for a ‘Transformative Change’
Harris has sometimes struggled with Black and progressive voters because of her history as a tough-on-crime prosecutor in a state where the incarceration rate for African Americans is five times higher than their share of the population.
That history looms large for Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old climate activist from New York, who founded the activist group Earth Uprising.
“I think Kamala Harris is a big win for women of color and environmental justice, however she definitely has some work to do in order to show our generation that she’s become more progressive since her prosecutor days,” she said.
But Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and author, widely known as “The Father of Environmental Justice,” told InsideClimate News last week that he thought Harris would add value to a Biden ticket at a moment when people are hungry for “transformative change.”
“We must center the fight for environmental and climate justice in the broader conversation” on race, Bullard said.
Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, called Harris “a cross-generational consensus-builder with a solid record for getting things done.” McCarthy, who served as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator under President Barack Obama, said Harris’s work in the nation’s leading clean energy state makes her a good fit to lead a national transformation.
“She’s worked to make California the nation’s leader in the clean energy jobs we need to confront the climate crisis head-on and build back better with a recovery that’s strong, durable and creates opportunity in every community in America,” McCarthy said.
In a foreshadowing of the attacks that are sure to come, the Trump-Pence campaign sent a blast email to the media Tuesday night, calling Harris “the most radical, far-left Vice Presidential nominee in U.S. history.” But many climate activists see both her and Biden as centrists. Calvin Yang, an 18-year-old Canadian climate organizer and spokesman for Fridays for Future International, commented on the pragmatism of their policy approaches.
“It’s great to have a green and relatively eco friendly duo on the presidency and vice presidency,” he said, “and the politics they implement wouldn’t be impossible to pass and would win the support of the American public.”
One Black climate activist, Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, who served on the task force that helped craft Biden’s climate plan, sees Harris as a standard-bearer. “It is time to make change and history at the same time,” she said.
Harris — formerly the district attorney for the city of San Francisco and the attorney general of California — has been known to be somewhat of a political chameleon. Her once-promising presidential campaign failed in part because of Harris’s inability to nail down her political ideology. But, over time, the Democrat has become increasingly firm in her commitment to one particular issue: environmental justice.
When Harris was running for president in 2019, she released a climate plan that put environmental justice front and center. Last July, she and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unveiled a plan to introduce climate legislation in Congress that would ensure new environmental regulations and legislation get evaluated through an environmental justice lens before becoming law. Last week, the two Democrats made good on that plan by formally introducing legislation called the Climate Equity Act. The act would set up a new Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Office of Management and Budget.
A week prior to that announcement, Harris introduced another piece of climate legislation in the Senate: a companion bill to the Environmental Justice for All Act introduced earlier this year in the House of Representatives by Democrats A. Donald McEachin of Virginia and Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona. In an email interview with Grist ahead of the introduction of that bill, the senator explained why environmental justice is so important to her. “Our country is in the midst of multiple crises,” Harris told Grist:
“First, there’s the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus that has killed over 148,000 people. It disproportionately affects Black and brown people in part due to the high frequency of pre-existing conditions like asthma and high blood pressure. These can stem from decades of toxic pollution being dumped in communities of color and which place people at higher risk of complications. Meanwhile, there is the continuing crisis of systemic racism in America that people of color have known and experienced for generations. All of these things intersect, and we must center the fight for environmental justice in the broader conversation.”
Harris’ commitment to this kind of work dates back to her days as a district attorney. In 2005, she created a mini version of the Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability she’s proposing now within the San Francisco district attorney’s office. “Crimes against the environment are crimes against communities, people who are often poor and disenfranchised,” she said at the time.
In short, she’s got a good record on justice that’s getting better and better. That could serve Biden well as he continues to hash out his climate plans in the months leading up to the election. He’s already introduced a more comprehensive and equitable version of his initial climate plan and sought input from an array of formal and informal climate advisors from many different corners of the climate movement, including environmental justice advocates. Harris will no doubt continue to steer his campaign in a justice-friendly direction. She also supports abolishing the filibuster, a step that will likely be necessary to get any climate or environmental policy through Congress in a Biden administration.