"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 signaled 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."
- In comparison to other candidates, Harris has been light on the details of how she would address climate change.
- She has expressed doubts about fracking, but not embraced a ban. Her position is also vague on the role of nuclear power. In 2017, she voted in committee 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.
- She has taken no position on a carbon tax or other ways of putting a price on carbon. That's a striking silence, given that California has long led the way with its comprehensive cap-and-trade system for restricting emissions of greenhouse gases.
- 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 has shied away from the particulars. She doesn't have the kind of comprehensive, detailed plan that many other candidates have offered, and in a few instances, such as whether to vigorously pursue an investigation of Exxon's activities, she has backed off.
"Combatting this crisis first requires the Republican majority to stop denying science and finally admit that climate change is real and humans are the dominant cause," her statement on the Green New Deal said. If that's an attempt to focus attention on the problem of Donald Trump and GOP denial, it may not propel her far in a turbulent climate debate among Democrats.