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The Environmental Legacy of Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s Newly-Announced Running Mate

Politics
The Environmental Legacy of Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s Newly-Announced Running Mate
California Senator Kamala Harris endorses Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan on March 9, 2020. JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP via Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a historic announcement Tuesday when he named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 presidential election.


Harris is now the first Black woman and the first person of Indian descent to run for national office for a major political party in the U.S., the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) pointed out. She also has a strong legacy of championing environmental justice throughout her career.

"Congratulations to Senator Kamala Harris, a true environmental champion!" LCV Action Fund Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Tiernan Sittenfeld said in a statement.

Harris has a lifetime LCV environmental voting score of 91 percent, better than Biden's 83 percent, InsideClimate News noted. Her selection won praise from several mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth Action and Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund.

Harris is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, according to Greentech Media, and promised to end the filibuster during her own presidential campaign so that the major climate legislation would have a chance at passing. Her unique contribution to the green movement, however, is her lifetime focus on environmental justice in particular. This is a key issue for the Biden campaign as a growing awareness of the climate crisis corresponds with nationwide protests over racial injustice and health disparities made starker by the coronavirus pandemic.

Environmental Justice

When Harris served as San Francisco district attorney, she created the office's first environmental justice unit in 2005, InsideClimate News reported.

"Crimes against the environment are crimes against communities, people who are often poor and disenfranchised," Harris said at the time, as Grist reported.

She has continued championing the issue as a Senator. This summer, she introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act with Senators Tammy Duckworth and Cory Booker to ensure the federal government considers low income communities and communities of color when issuing permits, Greentech Media reported.

She also teamed up with New York Representative and Green New Deal champion Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to introduce the Climate Equity Act, which would create a new Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Office of Management and Budget to make sure that all environmental legislation and regulations are assessed based on their impact on frontline communities.

The duo first proposed the act last summer and formally introduced it last week.

"COVID-19 has laid bare the realities of systemic racial, health, economic, and environmental injustices that persist in our country," Harris said in a statement about the new legislation reported by The Hill. "The environment we live in cannot be disentangled from the rest of our lives, and it is more important than ever that we work toward a more just and equitable future."

Climate Liability

During her presidential campaign and her time as California attorney general, Harris also emphasized holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their pollution, InsideClimate News pointed out.

As attorney general, she opposed a Chevron refinery expansion in Richmond, a majority Black and Hispanic community. She also sued Southern California Gas Co. over a methane blowout near Los Angeles.

Finally, she joined AGs United for Clean Power, a group of 17 attorneys general who said they would hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change. However, Harris never actually sued ExxonMobil, despite mistakenly claiming she had during a debate last year. She did repeatedly emphasize the need to hold fossil fuel companies responsible on the campaign trail and promised to have the Department of Justice launch an investigation.

"They are causing harm and death in communities. And there has been no accountability," she said at a CNN Town Hall on climate change.

Weaknesses

But Harris' prosecutorial record has another side. She has faced criticism from Black and progressive voters for her role as top prosecutor in a state that incarcerates African Americans at a rate five times higher than their share of the population. This has dampened her image somewhat with younger climate activists.

"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," 15-year-old climate activist and Earth Uprising founder Alexandria Villaseñor told InsideClimate News.

On the environmental front, Harris' weaknesses include the fact that she was one of the last Democratic candidates to unveil a climate plan, and, when she did, it did not include a ban on fracking, Grist pointed out. She has also accepted donations from fossil fuel companies in the past, though she pledged not to do so this election.

Weighing Harris' legacy, Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash said the Senator was willing to grow in response to criticism.

"Throughout the course of her campaign for President, Senator Kamala Harris showed her responsiveness to activist and movement pressure to make climate a top priority, and demonstrated her willingness to be held accountable," Prakash said in a statement reported by Greentech Media. "I'm also deeply aware of Senator Harris' record as a prosecutor and the ways in which a number of her decisions harmed communities of color, which our movement has spoken about in the past and will continue to."

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