Kamala Harris’s nomination as potential VP shines light on her fight to both protect the environment and bridge the racial divide.
Kamala Harris is no stranger to creating history.
Born to a mother from India and a father from Jamaica and deeply inspired by her maternal grandfather — an Indian diplomat who helped resettle refugees — Harris added another to her list of distinctions: the first Black and South Asian woman to be nominated a vice presidential candidate on a major-party ticket.
During her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention this week, she acknowledged those that came before her and the looming fight ahead. “We may not agree on every detail,” Harris said, “but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity, and respect.”
Race is a clear and present factor in the upcoming election, and equity and racial justice issues have become a core part of the Democratic Party’s plan for addressing climate change. In fact, a $2 trillion climate change plan that Biden issued before he chose Harris was titled the “Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Opportunity in a Clean Energy Future.” It set an ambitious goal that 40 percent of all clean energy spending would go to disadvantaged communities.
In Harris, Biden has a formidable ally for environmental justice advocates at a time when the green voter’s voice is perhaps the loudest that it has ever been. During her own brief presidential campaign, Harris vowed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 and put in place a 50 percent emissions reduction target by 2030. Indeed, just days before Biden’s historic decision to select her as his running mate, Harris introduced the Climate Equity Act, an expanded version of a bill Harris and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, introduced last year, that puts the environmental health of low-income communities of color at the center of efforts to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Biden has a formidable ally for environmental justice advocates at a time when the green voter’s voice is perhaps the loudest that it has ever been
The proposed legislation would create a dedicated Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the White House and require the federal government to rate the effect that every environmental legislation or regulation would have on low-income communities.
It’s a good thing that the Sanskrit translation of Harris’s name is lotus, a flower that symbolizes resilience in the face of all adversities. She will need every ounce of resilience to not only add black and brown to the emerging climate economy but also challenge the fossil fuel industry’s reluctance to admit their role in the soaring levels of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas — and take efforts to reduce those emissions.
And then there’s Trump. Despite polls suggesting that a majority of Americans want the president and Congress to protect the environment and tackle climate change, the Trump Administration is moving forward with rolling back a litany of regulations design to hold polluters accountable, including a plan that effectively eliminates requirements that oil companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from oil and gas facilities.
Trump wasted little time in characterizing Harris as “a madwoman with radical far left ideologies.” He further criticized her position on banning fracking as well as her support for the Green New Deal, arguing that her leadership will lead to “economic catastrophe in natural gas states like Pennsylvania.”
A tough road ahead
Harris’s actual environmental record is not without blemishes. She has faced some criticism for both failing to bring up climate change during the early days of her presidential campaign and mis-characterizing her investigation of Exxon Mobil while she was the attorney general of California. Two other state attorneys general actually filed suit against Exxon Mobil over its decades-long climate denial. Harris did not. Also giving environmentalists pause was her omission of climate change or environmental justice during her acceptance speech.
Also giving environmentalists pause was her omission of climate change or environmental justice during her acceptance speech.
She didn’t have to. Her long-standing record is pretty much aligned with those of her new boss. Though Biden’s climate plan would end fossil fuel subsidies and subsidize clean energy, it also envisions a continued role for fossil fuels for some time. It would not ban fracking, for instance, a position that Harris supported. Disagreements aside, the Biden-Harris ticket represents the center of the Democratic Party, and not the far left as assailed by Trump and epitomized by Bernie Sanders and his call for far more aggressive proposals to combat climate change.
It remains to be seen whether Biden’s choice will result in beating Trump in November or fundamentally change national policies on protecting the environment at a time of racial reckoning. One thing is clear. Harris has emerged as a political force in America – and a symbol of aspiration for women of color across the world.
The word is “resilience”
“Make no mistake,” she said during her acceptance speech. “The road ahead will not be easy. We will stumble. We may fall short. But I pledge to you that we will act boldly and deal with our challenges honestly…And let’s be clear: There is no vaccine for racism. We’ve gotta do the work.”
As far as many are concerned, choosing Harris was Biden’s first bold step.
Featured photo by Gage Skidmore