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Yesterday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced his pick of California Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate. While many had speculated Harris would be the presumptive vice-presidential nominee, her addition to the Democratic ticket is an important one for climate action and environmental justice.
Harris has been a steady champion of climate action in the Senate but perhaps her strongest stance has been her newly-released landmark legislation called the Climate Equity Act which would ensure that any environmental regulation or legislation would be rated based on its impact on low-income communities, similar to a CBO score.
Why This Matters: Kamala Harris’ strength in messaging climate issues and selling the Biden climate agenda is her ability to tie climate to social justice and public health issues. As she told Mother Jones’ Rebecca Leber, “For me this issue of the climate crisis relates to every aspect of what we do.”
She approaches climate justice from a prosecutorial lens and much of her own presidential climate plan focused on holding polluters accountable for the damage they’ve inflicted on vulnerable communities as well as strengthening laws to prevent these actions going forward.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic this year, Americans showed declining trust in institutions that was being driven by a growing sense of inequity and unfairness in the system. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, the perception is that institutions increasingly serve the interests of the few over everyone.
Biden and Harris both heavily emphasize environmental justice and equity in the clean energy future. If they can continue to prioritize these points in their campaign, it will bring a much-needed change to the political discourse on climate and environmental action (that environmental action doesn’t come at the expense of the economy).
Harris’ Climate Record: In Congress Senator Harris has been a steadfast champion of climate and conservation issues, often introducing legislation that emphasized the interconnectedness of the two issues:
The Wildfire Defense Act to help communities make themselves more resilient and prepare for and defend themselves from wildfires.
But Harris’ approach to climate action is probably most shaped by her time as attorney general of California. As Vox explained, during her tenure as AG, Harris was one of the first AGs to investigate an oil company over a complaint tied to climate change.
She opened a review into Exxon Mobil in 2016 to scrutinize the company’s framing of climate risks and at least two other states have done the same since.
That same year, Harris sued the Plains All-American Pipeline over an oil spill off the California coast and won a major indictment.
She also secured an $86 million settlement from Volkswagen for the state of California as part of its diesel emissions cheating scandal.
And she defended President Obama’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, in court filings.
Key Messaging: So far the Biden campaign has done a commendable job at connecting climate action to job creation. After all, Joe Biden’s climate plan is very much a jobs and economy plan.
Harris and Biden must continue to stay on-message especially against an opponent like Donald Trump who adeptly pounced on Hillary Clinton’s soundbite that American coal miners would be put out of work. While Senator Harris’ “cheeseburger gaffe” from the primary debates was largely forgotten it did frame climate action as something that inherently takes something away from Americans. Democrats can’t afford to wade into these debates, the focus of their climate messaging must remain on jobs, justice, and opportunity.
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