The political landscape has been buzzing all week after presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden named Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Unfortunately, a lot of sexism, racism, and xenophobia have also reared its ahead, but sadly that is an article for another day. As a leader within the field of weather and climate science, I wanted to explore Senator Harris’ work on climate change. What I find is that she brings an equity perspective to the topic. Here’s why.
Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. Like COVID-19, it will not discriminate based on country of origin, race, class, gender or political belief. It will affect every kitchen table issue including the economy, health, energy, water availability, infrastructure and more. Like COVID-19, climate change, is (and will) also disproportionately impact marginalized communities and the poor. We’ve already seen this from the lens of environmental justice as communities comprised of people of color and lesser economic means are often situated near landfills, polluting industries, and flood zones. As I previously wrote in my review of John Lewis’ environmental legacy, climate change is not just about polar bears and the year 2080. It is about civil rights, equity, and our well-being now.
Senator Kamala Harris seems to understand this. In 2019, she and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced their partnership on the Climate Equity Act. Senator Harris’ website correctly notes that “frontline communities are those that have experienced systemic socioeconomic disparities, environmental racism, and other forms of injustice, including low-income communities, indigenous peoples, and communities of color.” I remember a colleague saying that when the rest of the world gets a cold, frontline communities catch the flu (or COVID-19). While all of society will bear the brunt of climate change, sea level rise, and extreme weather events, Hurricane Katrina and the Chicago Heatwave of 1995 reveal that economic gaps are manifested as “climate gaps.”
The Climate Equity Act, according to the Senator’s website, will:
- Hold Congress accountable by scoring climate and environmental legislation based on its equity impact.
- Hold the Executive Branch accountable on rules and regulations and how they impact frontline communities.
- Give advocates a seat at the table through the establishment of an independent Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability and other mechanisms.
As a climate scientist, I am here to promote or debate whether the Green New Deal or other climate legislation gains traction, but here’s what I do know. We, as a society, need to act on the science, energy, economic and civil rights aspect of climate change immediately. Coronavirus has clearly revealed what happens when society continues to ignore the warnings of science experts.
Harris is not a newcomer on environmental action. As a San Francisco District Attorney, she set up an environmental justice unit. During her tenure in the U.S. Senate she has led legislation to convert the national school bus fleet to electric and to improve access and quality of water in at-risk or poor communities. I am a member of a National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) fraternity called Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Senator Kamala Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. These organizations, as well as the other members of the Council, do not fit the mental model that you may have of Green letter organizations. Our organizations emerged out of a need for inclusion, service, and scholarship at a time when African-Americans were segregated and discriminated against. Our organizations operate from perspective well beyond the undergraduate years and gamed House parties. I say all of that to underscore that I am not surprised that Senator Harris’ climate focus would include elements of equity, civil rights, and representation at the table.