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How Will VP Harris Influence Climate Policy At The White House?

Climate Action & A Woman’s Activism at the White House — Part I

When I began my research for this article, I started with determining the exact responsibilities of the US Vice President. The first item that came up was style of direct address: “Mr. Vice President.” Right away, we see that the Biden-Harris administration will be different. As of January, 2019, women of color represented less than 9% of members of Congress. For Kamala Harris, the vice presidency carries direct and indirect powers. Word around town is that soon-to-be President Biden is expected to delegate a significant portfolio to the former prosecutor and senator who sits beside him. How will US Vice President Harris influence climate policy?

Harris influence climate policy

Photo from CA Department of Justice archives

The Center for American Progress notes that, although they hold almost 52% of all management- and professional-level jobs, US women lag substantially behind men in terms of their representation in leadership positions. When Biden announced Harris as his running mate, he said he was “proud…to have her as [his] partner in this campaign.” She replied that she would be a “partner” to Biden. The implication is that Biden will replicate the hands-on vice presidential model he shared with Barack Obama, and with that collaboration comes Harris’ determination to fight the climate crisis.

“Climate change is an existential threat, and confronting it requires bold action,” she said when serving as Senator from California. She continued, “Political stunts won’t get us anywhere.” Instead of “stunts,” it was activism from movements like Sunrise that has made climate crisis policy-making visible. Commenting on the growth of activism in the Trump era and affirming that it isn’t completed, 86-year-old author and activist Gloria Steinem said, “I’ve never seen this much activism in my life.”

Will Harris influence climate policy so that substantive change can be the end result of activism that hoisted it into the Top 4 issues of the 2020 Presidential election?

Harris’ Efforts to Seek Climate Justice

The day after Joe Biden was formally announced as the elected 46th President of the US, the New York Times outlined 5 steps that he could do early in his presidency to put the US back on a path to addressing climate change.

  • Rejoin the Paris Agreement
  • Convene global leaders
  • Reverse energy rollbacks
  • Make climate part of coronavirus relief
  • Sign executive orders to cut emissions

Kamala Harris is well-suited to help Biden achieve each of these steps. As California Attorney General, Harris fought for environmental actions:

  • Created an environmental justice unit
  • Confronted the fossil fuel industry, opposing a Chevron refinery expansion in Richmond
  • Joined other blue-state AG’s to challenge Trump regulatory rollbacks
  • Supported United for Clean Power in 2016

She introduced or co-sponsored environmental and climate legislation as a California Senator:

  • The Green New Deal (2019)
  • COAST Anti-Drilling Act (2019)
  • Zero-Emission Vehicles Act (2019)
  • Living Shorelines Act (2018)
  • The Environmental Justice for All Act (2017)
  • Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act (2017)
  • Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act (2017)

Harris outlined the following proposals during her own run for the Presidency:

  • Pledged $10 trillion in investment over 10 years in the clean energy transition
  • Called for 100% “carbon neutral” electricity by 2030
  • Endorsed the idea of a climate pollution fee, both to reduce carbon emissions and to hold polluters accountable
  • Committed to 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
  • Announced a halt to all new federal leasing for and to work with Congress to phase out existing leases
  • Declared that she would prohibit methane flaring on public lands and would link production royalties to the social costs of that production
  • Signed a pledge not to take fossil fuel money in her presidential campaign (although she had taken industry donations in the past)

She finished with a “B+” (77/100) on the Greenpeace #Climate2020 presidential scorecard when she was running for the top spot. She had especially strong marks on polluter accountability, and her climate prowess was, actually, slightly ahead of Biden at a steady “B+” (75.5/100).

And — possibly most importantly — she joined Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the co-author of the Green New Deal, to draft a Climate Equity Act, which would create a dedicated Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the White House. It would require the federal government to rate the effect that every environmental legislation or regulation would have on low-income communities.

The Climate Equity Act

Recognizing that many people in society will be affected by the climate crisis, the Climate Equity Act seeks to ensure that frontline communities are at the heart of the decision-making process whenever it considers a policy, regulation, or rule “with a climate or environmental nexus—which could broadly include direct policies to address the environment and climate change, but also transportation, housing, infrastructure, jobs, workforce development, and more.”

The Act seeks to hold various government entities accountable for work on the climate and social justice as well as to seek out divergent voices.


  • Require that environmental and climate-related legislation receive an equity score that will transparently estimate the impact on frontline communities.
  • The equity score will be modeled after the economic scores provided by the Congressional Budget Office, will be developed in consultation with experts and leaders from frontline communities, and will be updated periodically.

Executive Branch:

  • Require that environmental and climate-related rules and regulations that have significant impact on frontline communities undergo an additional level of review. This review will aim to mitigate negative impacts, maximize benefits, and bring representatives from frontline communities into the regulatory review process.
  • Require that environmental and climate-related federal grant-making and investment programs undergo review to ensure that frontline communities benefit.

Give Advocates a Seat at the Table:

  • Establish an independent Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability to represent the views of frontline communities in rulemaking by bringing those communities into the rulemaking process, conduct research on issues and trends in frontline communities, measure the costs of regulations on frontlines communities, and monitor government compliance.
  • Establish a new position of Senior Advisor for Climate and Environmental Justice at all relevant agencies to ensure compliance and coordination between the relevant agency and the Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability.
  • Ensure that representatives of frontline communities are at the table during the review of rules and regulations, providing insights and comments on how to minimize negative impacts and maximize benefits of rules and regulations on frontline communities.

Final Thoughts: Can Harris Influence Climate Policy?

As part of her presidential campaign, Harris declared,

“We have always been an aspirational nation. I am reminded of this every time I look into the eyes of our children. With leadership, teamwork, and aspiration, our history tells us anything is possible. But we must also speak truth about the road ahead. We are living through a worsening climate crisis that is impacting communities across America and the globe every day. From families devastated by hurricanes in the South and the East, to farmers facing flooding in the Midwest, to firefighters battling wildfires in the West, one thing is clear: we need to take bold, direct action. Now.”

Will Harris influence climate policy? The answer seems to be a resounding “yes.” In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the specifics she outlined and project how much autonomy Biden might endow to her to make her climate and environmental action vision a reality.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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