Kamala and the Climate
I may be a Warren fanboy at heart, but there is a lot to like about Kamala’s position on climate change.
Sen. Kamala Harris has been selected as Joe Biden’s running mate, as you probably know. The role of the Vice President varies from presidency to presidency. Cheney was extremely hands-on with foreign affairs, Biden was Obama’s liaison with the Senate, and Pence spends his time being creepy.
For a Biden administration, Harris might take the lead on the climate and environment portfolio! While she may not have been the top choice of progressives, she is a good fit with Biden’s shift left on climate issues.
The Filibuster and the Green New Deal
The most important environmental issue, nay, the most important policy question facing a Biden administration will be the filibuster. It is the meta-issue for all intra-Democratic politics. Even if the Democrats have a slam-dunk showing in November, it is almost impossible for the party to have a filibuster-proof majority (60 Senators) in the Senate.
Major legislation would therefore rely on the cooperation of Senate Republicans. Given the last decade of American politics, this seems far-fetched. Abolishing (or reforming) the filibuster is essentially the only route to substantial legislation.
With respect to the climate, there are some things that can be done without filibuster reform. Reconciliation is a process that allows the Senate to pass bills that are primarily budgetary in nature and do not exceed $1.5 trillion in value. While there will be legal wrangling, some medium-sized climate bills could wiggle through this loophole. A comprehensive bill like the “Green New Deal” would certainly not fit.
Joe Biden has been tepid-to-cold on filibuster reform. During the primary, when asked about the topic, Biden’s campaign said he does not support ending the filibuster. Recently, he has signaled more openness to the idea, but he is clearly not enthused by the subject.
Kamala has unequivocally supported ending the filibuster if the Republicans are obstructionists. During the primary campaign, she addressed this exact question in the context of climate change. This is a clip taken from her Climate Crisis Town Hall.
If they fail to act, as President of the United States, I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.
Obviously being Vice President and President are different things, but imagine we are in the first hundred days of the Biden presidency. Stimulus money has run dry, and the Democrats are trying to pass the Green New Deal, but are running into Mitch McConnell’s 48 GOP Senators who are staging a filibuster.
Biden has to decide whether to negotiate with Republicans, or move to scrap the filibuster. Having Vice President Harris in the room to nudge him forward increases the odds that Democrats will remove the filibuster and pass the Green New Deal.
Taking on Oil and Gas
Kamala’s record as California’s Attorney General is a point of controversy, but when it comes to her prosecutorial record against oil and gas companies, she has done impressive work. In 2016, Harris indicted Plains All-American Pipeline in 46 criminal charges related to an oil spill. In 2011, she extracted $24.5 million from Chevron stemming from violations of state hazardous waste laws. The Biden-Harris administration will not be shy about standing up to big oil.
Beyond this, Harris has said she would be open to suing oil and gas companies for the misinformation campaigns they have waged on climate science. In the Climate Crisis Town Hall, she was asked about this:
This is what we did with the tobacco companies. We sued them. We took them to court. Because you know what happens? People who profit off of harmful behaviors, when you take away that money, because you take them to court and sue them as I have done, it’s extraordinary how they will change behaviors. They have to be held accountable.
Forceful stuff! Now, the Vice President’s influence over the Department of Justice is going to be somewhat indirect, but this implies we might see lawsuits against oil and gas in the coming years.
Harris may not get through some other measures, no matter how influential she is on climate policy. Biden has said he is not willing to issue an executive order banning fracking; instead, he’d only stop new fracking projects. Harris could push him on this subject, but we will need to wait for the final platform.
It is noteworthy that Sen. Harris introduced a bill last week with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Climate Equity Act. This act aims to protect vulnerable communities from environmental impacts.
Disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected by issues like hazardous waste and poor air quality, and will also be on the front-line of climate change. Harris’s summary of the act calls out areas like Cancer Alley in Louisiana and Asthma Alley in the Bronx as example communities affected by environmental injustice.
If passed, the Climate Equity Act would ensure extra review is conducted to ensure these vulnerable communities are assisted by new regulations, and would benefit from grant-making and investment programs.
While there is no chance this bill will pass in the current Congress, the fact that Kamala’s last act as “Senator Harris” versus “V.P. Candidate Harris” was to propose this bill is a strong signal. She could have done something on criminal justice reform, the economy, or health care, but she chose to work on an environmental initiative with AO-friggin’-C. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but she seems serious about the environment, and is not afraid to be cast as a radical on the subject.
Kamala is certainly not perfect. Her record as a prosecutor is definitely worthy of debate. But when it comes to the environment, she is solid. My vibe on Biden is that he is not particularly passionate about the nuances of domestic policy. He is most interested in foreign relations and keeping everyone happy. With Kamala as Vice President, there is reason to be optimistic that she will push Biden, and the Democratic party more broadly, to take bold and progressive steps on climate change and the environment.