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What the Kamala Harris VP Pick Means for Biden’s Energy and Climate Platform

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Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign added more climate clout on Tuesday, as the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee selected California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.

While a moderate pick compared to some of the more climate-focused candidates that ran in 2020, such as Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Harris framed her environmental platform around the Green New Deal — even pledging to eliminate the filibuster to get it passed — and environmental justice, before leaving the race in December.

“From wildfires in the west to hurricanes in the east, to floods and droughts in the heartland, we’re not gonna buy the lie. We’re gonna act, based on science fact, not science fiction,” Harris proclaimed in Oakland as she kicked off her campaign.

Since her election to the Senate in 2016, Harris has emerged as a leader among Democrats and has become known for her sharp questioning in congressional hearings. She’s a cosponsor of the Green New Deal resolution and in both 2019 and 2020 introduced versions of the Climate Equity Act with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which would require the government to assess the impacts of environmental legislation on low-income communities. Her Environmental Justice for All Act, introduced with Senators Tammy Duckworth and Cory Booker this summer, similarly mandates the government consider low-income and communities of color in federal permitting and decision making.   

Environmental justice and climate issues played a role in Harris’ earlier work in California, as well. While San Francisco’s District Attorney, she created an environmental justice unit to tackle environmental crimes impacting low-income residents. And after rising to state attorney general, Harris joined other state AGs in investigating ExxonMobil’s knowledge of climate change. She also navigated a settlement with Chevron tied to pollution.  

Early on in her campaign, Harris signed the fossil fuel pledge to decline money from oil and gas companies. Her climate plan, released in September, leaned on her past, promising to hold corporations legally accountable for environmental harms. And her run for the White House, plus the elevation of climate change in the 2020 race, shed light on some of her more particular energy and environmental positions, such as support for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and extraction on public lands, as well as a hazy stance on the future of nuclear power. 

While more progressive than Biden on some issues, Harris is decidedly moderate, and activists are wary of her past work as a prosecutor. Like Biden, Harris has also been somewhat hesitant to fully commit to certain policy priorities of environmental activists, like a fracking ban (Biden has still shied away from this position, while Harris committed) and ending fossil fuel exports.

On Tuesday, Varshini Prakash, co-founder of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group that has championed a Green New Deal, recognized Harris’ willingness to incorporate feedback.

“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,” said Prakash, in a statement. “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.”

Prakash applauded Harris’ record on environmental justice; Harris’ prioritization of that issue could be a boon to the Biden campaign as it merges its clean energy priorities with themes in the Green New Deal and the U.S. continues to reckon with its legacy of racism. This summer, as protests over the killing of Black Americans spread across the nation, Biden hinted he would select a woman of color as his running mate. Harris, who grew up in Berkeley, California, is Black and Indian, making her selection as a major party vice presidential nominee a historic one.

It’s unclear how central energy and climate will be to Harris’ vice presidential candidacy. Already, climate change has been a more high-profile election issue than in years past. Biden’s framing of clean energy investment as a means to rebuild the economy sets it up as a central theme of the administration, if he is elected. But Biden and Harris would need Congress to accomplish many of the more significant policies either has proposed.

Pressured by activists plus a pandemic and economic crisis that have once again exposed the deep inequities in U.S. society, Biden has moved notably leftward on energy and environmental issues. He recently pledged to help the U.S. reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, while investing $2 trillion in a transition towards a zero-carbon economy.

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