An unlikely consensus developed soon after Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate.
President Donald Trump and his petroleum-industry allies fell into near perfect agreement with climate activists and environmental groups on one thing: Harris is an aggressive crusader against fossil fuels.
While that position might be useful for riling political bases on both sides, a review of evidence from her career as a prosecutor and legislator indicates that Harris appears more moderate than either side admits. And her record shows that her motivation has been driven more by climate justice than climate change.
“I don’t think climate wakes her up at 3 a.m.,” says RL Miller, founder of California-based environmental group Climate Hawks Votes and someone who has known Harris for years.
Start with Harris’s relatively mixed record on fossil fuels as California’s Attorney General. She filed lawsuits against several oil companies over environmental violations and helped secure a conviction against Plains All American Pipeline LP for a 2015 spill in Santa Barbara. But going after corporate polluters, especially those with deep pockets that very publicly soil valuable coastline property, is a relative no brainer for an attorney general in a reliably blue state.
Although Harris’s office reportedly investigated Exxon Mobil Corp. on climate accusations, to the frustration of environmental groups such as Climate Hawks Votes there was no lawsuit filed against the oil giant. In fact, Harris got in trouble for claiming in a debate that she had pursued a case. Meanwhile, attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York both did bring action against Exxon. It was only last year that Harris joined other U.S. senators in an amicus brief supporting a climate lawsuit against oil companies by San Francisco and Oakland.
‘I don’t think climate wakes her up at 3 a.m.’
In her first week as Biden’s running mate, Harris has been hammered by Trump for her opposition to hydraulic fracturing, a method for forcing oil and natural gas from bedrock. During the years she was attorney general, California was torn by the fracking debate. Otherwise liberal Governor Jerry Brown battled environmentalists as he let fracking grow; Harris laid low until late in her term, when she went after fracking in federal waters near Santa Barbara. Now she, like Biden, has promised to curtail oil and gas development on federal lands and waters. It’s worth noting that the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, presided over the U.S. shale boom driven by fracking.
In another sign of a cautious approach, Harris signed the no-fossil-fuel-money pledge when she was a candidate for president but became one of the later Democratic contenders to do so. And she didn’t do it publicly, but in a backroom with a photographer.
Yet Harris’s record on climate justice is much clearer. Way back in 2005 as the district attorney for the city of San Francisco, she opened the city’s first environmental justice unit. As attorney general, she tangled with oil companies particularly on projects that disproportionately affected low-income and minority communities. She wrote a blistering criticism of the draft environmental impact statement for a planned $1 billion expansion by Chevron Corp. of a refinery based in Richmond, a majority minority community, and for Valero Energy Corp.’s plan to expand rail shipments of crude at its refinery in the heavily Latino city of Benecia.
To an observer like Miller of Climate Hawks, pushing legal action against California refineries marked Harris as far more proactive than her predecessors. Examples of similar aggressiveness date all the way back to the start of Harris’s tenure as attorney general. In 2011, when the regional planning agency for San Diego, known as SANDAG, submitted a plan for highway expansion, Harris wrote a letter warning that the localized pollution effects would be disproportionate. The new attorney general even threatened to sue, and when it was clear SANDAG didn’t believe the threat she went ahead in 2012 and had the People of California join the suit.
By all accounts, Harris has become greener in the U.S. Senate—especially since she started eyeing a presidential run. But even there her priorities have been more climate justice than climate change. She was an early supporter of the Green New Deal and has co-sponsored separate climate equity legislation with climate stalwart Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But there’s evidence, again, that climate isn’t her No. 1 concern. Harris willingly left a seat on the Senate’s powerful Environment and Public Works Committee, which had been chaired by her predecessor Barbara Boxer, in favor of Judiciary.
Paul Bledsoe, energy fellow and strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute, says that shouldn’t be a concern. “California is the most innovative clean energy economy in the world, so just being senator from that state puts her at the epicenter of climate leadership,” he says.
In fact, as California’s attorney general Harris did, as a matter of course, have to defend both California’s cap-and-trade system and standards for low-carbon vehicle fuel against lawsuits to dismantle them. She protected both successfully.
An active but measured approach to climate, with an emphasis on equity, might make Harris a fitting reflection of the Democratic Party at the moment. That’s how Miller increasingly sees it: “One of the main planks of the Green New Deal is equity for all. Kamala is very solid on that.”