Climate Change

Is Kamala Harris a reliable climate leader?

Harris, the democratic vice-presidential candidate, expressed support for the Green New Deal, but has represented the establishment wing of the Democratic party throughout her political career

By Avantika Goswami
Published: Tuesday 15 September 2020

Joe Biden — the Democratic party’s presidential nominee in the upcoming United States’ election — announced Senator Kamala Harris (Democrat—California) as his running mate last month for the role of vice president.

The first woman of colour to appear on a major party ticket, Harris was born to an Indian mother and Jamaican father and raised in the US and Canada. Many are optimistic about the representation and visibility she offers in her position.

The sudden spotlight on her Indian roots was also criticised by many as a tokenistic reference to an association she has seldom been vocal about but chose to acknowledge now, perhaps as a means to secure the vote of the diaspora.

Some climate plan goals of Kamala Harris’ former presidential campaign include:

  • A net-zero carbon economy by 2045
  • 100 per cent clean power, zero-emission new vehicles and carbon-neutral new buildings by 2030
  • Protection of 30 per cent of US’ lands and oceans by 2030
  • Ending fossil fuel subsidies

In her roles as California’s attorney general till 2014 and then as a senator, Harris held an assortment of climate-adjacent positions, including the protection of marginalised communities from the impacts of environmental crimes and holding fossil fuel companies accountable.

In her earlier campaign bid for the US presidency, she unveiled a $10 trillion plan “in public and private funding to meet the initial 10-year mobilisation necessary to stave off the worst climate impacts”, interestingly, the last presidential candidate to release a climate plan.

Harris centered her campaign policies around lifting marginalised communities and promised to pass the Climate Equity Act — announced earlier in partnership with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — that evaluates every climate legislation’s impact on frontline communities.

She also expressed support for the Green New Deal — a bold proposal introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and recently re-elected Senator Ed Markey — that lays out a transformative roadmap to bring about an equitable and rapid transition to a decarbonised economy.

Her history as a prosecutor and her voting record in the Senate, however, are at odds with her current insistence that environmental justice is important to her.

Harris did not vocally renounce support for a policy that handed undocumented students over to the country’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She also supported the death penalty, voted to increase President Donald Trump’s military budget and supported policies that jailed or harmed Black people for minor non-violent offences related to marijuana.

The climate crisis is not simply a technical problem to fix, but is also a socio-political crisis. An anti-war, anti-militarist and community-oriented stance is therefore crucial to ensure that funds are diverted away from military spending, policing and prisons, and towards expanding climate-ready infrastructure, renewable energy assets and low-carbon transportation.

On fossil fuels, an interesting and somewhat overlooked aspect of her campaign’s plan is “the first-ever global negotiation of the cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production”, a concept explained in detail by Aimee Barnes of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

If this kind of international coalition is successful, it could signal a truly worldwide effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground and divert resources and energy to renewable sources on a large scale.

Harris also promised that her administration will give the Department of Justice resources to investigate oil and gas companies who directly impacted global warming, stating she will “take them to court and sue them”.

This ties back to some of her efforts as attorney general. She opposed the expansion of a Chevron Corp refinery in Richmond, sued Southern California Gas Co over a methane accident near Los Angeles and secured a conviction against Plains All American Pipeline LP for an oil spill in Santa Barbara County.

Her record is mixed, however, since her office reportedly investigated Exxon Mobil Corp for feigning ignorance about climate change for decades but never actually filed a lawsuit, a fact revealed when she claimed otherwise during a presidential debate.

As California Governor Jerry Brown allowed the unrestrained expansion of fracking in the state, she did not oppose it for several years and only recently made her support for a fracking ban clear — a stance Joe Biden does not share.

While some of her positions are promising, the fact remains that Harris has represented the establishment wing of the Democratic party throughout her political career. This is a faction that — unlike young leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar — tends to favour corporate (and frequently fossil fuel) interests over meaningful measures that will protect American workers and communities from the worst of the approaching impacts of the climate crisis.

Biden himself oversaw the shale boom in the US during the Barack Obama years and continues to have close ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Given the power wielded by fossil fuel corporations and lobbies, Harris’ inconsistent climate ideals and her tendency to favour opportunism and tokenism over solid commitments could be her downfall when it comes to advancing decarbonisation goals.

This applies particularly if she is serious about advancing proposals as ambitious as the Green New Deal. Ultimately, her checkered past is something she must be held accountable for, if she is to bring the kind of meaningful climate-positive lens to the Biden campaign, as is expected of her.

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