Update: On Dec. 3, Harris announced she was withdrawing from the Democratic primary race for president.
“As California breaks one wildfire record after another, we need to speak the truth—in order to mitigate these fires, we must combat the effects of climate change.” —Kamala Harris, August 2018
Sen. Kamala Harris is just the latest example of a presidential candidate using a newly won Senate seat as a launching pad, but her political profile was built in California, a state where environmental and climate policy rank high on the agenda.
As San Francisco’s district attorney she created an environmental justice unit and as California attorney general she confronted the fossil fuel industry, opposing a Chevron refinery expansion in Richmond. She frequently joined other blue-state AG’s to challenge Trump regulatory rollbacks. One of 17 to join AGs United for Clean Power in 2016, she signalled support of an investigation of ExxonMobil but did not take on the company as did Massachusetts and New York, which pursued active legal challenges that continue to this day.
In the Senate minority, Harris has opposed Trump and the Republicans on environmental issues, especially those that involve California, like rollbacks of regulations involving offshore drilling or automotive fuel efficiency standards.
She joined with five other senators to file a brief in court on behalf of San Francisco and Oakland in their climate damages lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, citing the millions of dollars the industry has spent to sow climate change doubt and influence lawmakers.
Harris, like other senators running for president, has embraced the Green New Deal. “Climate change is an existential threat, and confronting it requires bold action,” she said, adding: “Political stunts won’t get us anywhere.”
Harris has sought to make environmental justice a central part of her climate plan, including working with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the avatar of the Green New Deal, to draft a Climate Equity Act. They propose that all environmental and climate legislation and regulations be scored for their impacts on “frontline” communities—the same kind of analysis that is now required for the budget impact of legislation and the economic costs and benefits of regulations. The idea is to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impacts for those who live in poor and minority neighborhoods that contend with high levels of air and water pollution and are also in the crosshairs of global warming impacts.
- In her climate plan released in September, Harris pledged $10 trillion in investment over 10 years in the clean energy transition, a plan that catapulted her into the top tier of candidates committing to spend the most on climate actions, but she does not specify how much of that money would come from public spending and how much from the private sector. (In contrast, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal is for the federal government to provide $16.3 trillion funding over 10 years.) She calls for 100 percent “carbon neutral” electricity by 2030, ambitious but perhaps more realistic than Sanders’ aim for all-renewable power in a decade.
- Harris has expressed doubts about fracking, but she has not embraced a ban. Her position is also vague on the role of nuclear power. In 2017, she voted against a bill to spark innovation in advanced nuclear reactors, which had bipartisan support but never became law, arguing that it didn’t address waste issues. Harris said consent of indigenous communities should be required for nuclear waste storage sites.
- Harris endorses the idea of a climate pollution fee, both to reduce carbon emissions and to hold polluters accountable, while stressing that pricing pollution is not a silver bullet. She said that it is important that fee revenues be invested back into communities to improve environmental conditions and local economic development.
- Harris has said that she would phase out all fossil fuel development on public lands and would implement conservation and renewable energy strategies to make public lands net carbon sinks by 2030. She said she would halt all new federal leasing for and work with Congress to phase out existing leases. She also said she would prohibit methane flaring on public lands and would link production royalties to the social cost of carbon.
- Harris signed a pledge not to take fossil fuel money in her presidential campaign. She has taken industry donations in the past.
There’s no question that Harris understands the importance of climate change, its causes, and the need for rapid solutions. But she has not made it a hallmark of her campaign, and she was blasted by the Sunrise Movement for briefly considering attending fundraisers in California instead of participating in CNN’s Climate Crisis Town Hall.
As one of the last candidates to produce a detailed climate plan, Harris openly drew on the work of her fellow candidates, endorsing Sen. Cory Booker’s environmental justice ideas, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s insights on carbon pricing, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal on Climate Risk Disclosure. Harris may not be at the front of the pack on climate, but she has sought to put together a package of what she sees as the best ideas from those who have been ahead of her.