If you’re anything like me, you might be looking at the crowded Democratic field with one burning question: who is the candidate capable of tackling climate change?
There are plenty of centrists and progressives across the spectrum of Democratic politics who say the right things. But phrases like “We must act now!” and “We can invest in green technologies!” aren’t enough. Climate change is happening, and it’s hurting.
I’m looking for a candidate who will, despite any political backlash or opposition from the Right, take leadership on proactive policies to limit the impact of irreversible climate change. This is non-negotiable, and the easiest way to vet a candidate for this role is how they talk about climate in their campaign.
Enter Senator Kamala Harris and her surging poll numbers.
The first time I visited Senator Kamala Harris’s campaign website, I was struck with how she’s branded herself and her bid for president. From colors and typography to video use and website layout, the Kamala Harris brand is sure to appeal through its neighborhood-election feeling.
The words “tough” and “fearless” are bigger than her own name, and these punch words are coupled with a montage of clips that play on a loop throughout the design of the main page. Senator Harris is seen in a puffy winter jacket on the street with a microphone, in the midst of an ethnically diverse crowd. She’s shaking hands with children while wearing street clothes. She’s taking selfies. The few photographs of her on a stage rather than with the people put her at eye-level.
This is a politician using visual branding to position herself as an activist. Her calls to action attempt to create a political movement-esque culture right off the bat. A brightly colored “Let’s do this” button allows you to donate to her campaign, or you can feel “Fearless” too if you text it to a common shortcode. On the surface, this works for the 2020 race ahead: Harris will be up against the Commander in Fear himself, Donald J. Trump, and fearlessness against fear would highlight the curious optimism and pessimism within the American electorate.
On the one side would be Harris, unafraid of everything from racial tensions, immigration, and a changing economy; on the other is Trump, a man who actively exploits fear around those very issues. Harris has delivered on that fearlessness too. In the first round of debates, she didn’t hesitate to land a punch on Joe Biden. We saw her eloquently display to the American public how far away political issues actually have a deeply personal impact.
I didn’t see Harris attack Biden on that stage. I saw a woman tell a politician that his values just don’t match up with the next generation of politics.
But if Harris is really here for the next generation and the future, is she prepared to tackle climate change?
The reason I ended up on her campaign website in the first place was to find out. Harris has been vocal about a plethora of issues but I haven’t heard her speak in-depth on climate or the environment. Regardless of which party wins the White House, a major part of the United States population still doesn’t accept climate change as a scientific fact. Environmental regulations and admittedly aggressive policy proposals are quickly branded as takeovers by the ruling class, and we need a Democratic candidate who can — and will — take those steps in spite of any ire drawn by the climate-denying Right.
On the Harris campaign website, the traditional page dedicated to issues is rebranded as “Our America” where a blog-like grid covers the issues in bold purple text. These are followed by two or three sentences to summarize her position. Climate change is on the second row at number 4, falling only behind other high priority voter issues: affordable healthcare, economic justice, and teacher pay.
So, what’s the quick and dirty summary of her position? “We must act now to radically combat climate change” or else we’ll all be dealing with “global climate catastrophes.” Ok, cool. Nothing I haven’t heard before. So I read the full version.
And I read it again. There are a whopping six paragraphs that make up the senator’s climate approach, and most of the paragraphs are a mere two sentences. In fact, her entire agenda is laid out in fifteen sentences. Much of it isn’t even her own agenda, but references to the radical action and ideas of others.
AOC’s Green New Deal is referenced and Senator Harris appears to support it. She also touts her record, of course, by mentioning a lawsuit against Chevron as proof of her ability to stand up to special interests. Like other progressive candidates, she demonstrates an understanding of environmental racism through subtle language, mentions the goal of a carbon-free future, and of course supports the creation of jobs around innovative technologies. She promises to re-join the Paris Climate Accords abandoned by the Trump Administration and to re-instate Obama-era environmental protections.
In short, Senator Kamala Harris has nothing original or surprising on her climate page. So far, she hasn’t contributed to the conversation; she’s more like the charismatic friend in the group who knows exactly when to nod and repeat fizzy comments to hype up the discussion.
Of course, campaign websites don’t typically play host to long-winded policy proposals. I wasn’t expecting downloadable PDFs detailing budgets and tax hikes, grants, and new regulations. Nor was I expecting infographics made by climate policy experts on her team.
But if I had, I’d already have donated my summer movie-going budget. And flown to Iowa.
This race is different. Bold and detailed policy proposals, rather than rhetorical promises, are coming from candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren, spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. If Senator Harris wants the vote of the many Earth-first progressives like me, she must do better than bumper-sticker quality positions and echoing policy.
There’s hope, though. Kamala Harris has a record to stand on.
Harris has a lifetime score of 100 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. She voted against repealing regulations on methane emissions, wrote an excellent critique of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and categorically opposed the Trump administration’s proposal to reverse Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. In 2016 as California’s attorney general, Harris swiftly launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil after reports that the oil company lied for decades about the risks of global warming. And, in 2016 as a candidate for senate, Harris received endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.
Yet all of this information is absent from her campaign website and her media appearances. Why?
The most disappointing part of her climate policy page is the hook. It’s led by concrete examples of increasingly dramatic displays in weather: floods in the Midwest, hurricane intensities in the South and East Coast, and intensifying wildfires in California. The loss in our natural resources, destruction of infrastructure, and displacement of sea-level urban populations would, in my opinion, fit more into her campaign’s brand.
I don’t think it’s too much to expect depth on this subject from the 2020 candidates. The standard has been, since 2006, to simply talk about climate change to position your campaign for public office as progressive and forward-thinking; and despite all those elected to congress and executive office, we have not done enough to save this planet. This is a national security issue, a public health issue, and an environmental issue. We deserve a president who is willing to do the hard work of leadership in proactive climate policy.
Maybe we’ll hear more climate from Senator Harris on the debate stage. Until then, I’ll keep an eye out for those infographics.