Green advocates hope Harris sparks young, disadvantaged voters

They hope her environmental justice record energizes young voters and people in communities polluted by nearby industries. History says that's unlikely

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris after  acDemocratic Presidential Debate in September.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris after acDemocratic Presidential Debate in September. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted August 20, 2020 at 6:00am

Environmental advocates say they are optimistic Sen. Kamala Harris, officially nominated by Democrats as their candidate for vice president Wednesday night, can drive turnout among younger voters and people who live in low-income communities threatened by pollution to support the ticket in November, just as they turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

As a California prosecutor, Harris carved out a record on environmental justice cases. She focused on the overlap of climate and racial issues in the Senate and is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution (S Res 59), which calls for an overhaul of the U.S. energy system and has some bipartisan support, according to a survey from Yale and George Mason researchers.

Harris also has a higher lifetime score (91 versus 83) from the League of Conservation Voters, which ranks members of Congress based on their environmental protection credentials, than Joe Biden the former vice president and longtime senator at the top of the ticket. And her political rise mirrors a period in which voters have grown increasingly alarmed about climate change.

Yet Harris’ presence on the Democratic ticket and her environmental justice record are unlikely to invigorate or sway a broad swath of environmentally focused voters because the public does not evaluate vice presidential candidates on single issues, experts note. And, they say, voters who care about climate change were already likely to align with Democrats, and swing voters have nearly vanished from the electorate.

“True independents are this tiny, tiny set of unicorns,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Hillary Clinton lost the election four years ago by 80,000 votes after Democrats in the Midwest who previously voted for Obama stayed home on Election Day, he noted. So Biden had to develop a more muscular stance on climate to appease the Democratic base, including young and climate-minded voters who supported left-leaning candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Leiserowitz said.

"Biden has a sales job, and he's in the middle of the sale job right this moment with [the] Democratic [National] Convention, of mobilizing the progressive base of his party to come out and vote for him," Leiserowitz said. "And this is absolutely critical."

By selecting Harris, Biden showed he was serious about climate change, Leiserowitz said. “She certainly checks a box there.”

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Indeed, the Trump campaign has sought to paint the Biden-Harris ticket as a risk to the natural gas industry, which relies on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to pull gas from the ground. After Harris was announced as Biden's running mate, the Trump campaign said the California Democrat "supports the job-killing Green New Deal and wants to ban all fracking, which means economic catastrophe in natural gas states like Pennsylvania."

Voter attitudes

Climate change is not a top issue among voters, but it is a divisive one. It ranked seventh among topics of importance in a Gallup poll in December, with 44 percent of Democrats and just 8 percent of Republicans saying it was “extremely important.”

Less than half, or 42 percent, of registered voters in a Pew Research Center poll taken last month said the climate crisis is “very important” but rated it No. 11 on a list of important issues for the 2020 presidential campaign.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the effect on voters of picks for the vice presidency is “vastly” overestimated.

“The main thing voters ask about a VP pick is whether the nominee chose a running mate who can basically do the job if needed,” Murray said. “That’s about general qualifications, not specific policy.”

Data indicate climate voters broadly overlap with key blocs of the Democratic Party: women, millennials, voters of color and people with a college degree.

Research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication released in April found Hispanics and African Americans to be more worried about climate change than white voters. Sixty-nine percent of Hispanics and 57 percent of African Americans were alarmed or concerned about the warming climate, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

“The group that’s the most engaged are Latinos,” Leiserowitz said. “But they don’t vote in proportion to their numbers,” he said. “That’s the critical piece. They don’t actually flex the political muscle they have.”

Getting them to the polls is critical for Democrats in 2020. Black voter turnout dropped in the 2016 presidential election even though a record number of Americans voted, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, declining from both 2008 and 2012, when Obama won the White House.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, a national racial climate justice advocate, said Harris could help Biden draw support from so-called front-line voters — people who live in disadvantaged communities in close proximity to pollution sources  — and said she has a strong record in combating environmental injustices.

Yet many of the voters who could be primed to vote for and organize on behalf of Harris could be turned off by her record as the San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, he said. “Harris has some work to do in that department,” Rodgers-Wright said by phone. “If there was no prosecutorial record to speak of, we’d be doing back flips about Kamala Harris.”

Rogers-Wright said Harris’ climate resume stacked up well against other candidates, but said police overhaul advocates find fault in her policing policies.

While running for attorney general, Harris supported marijuana for medical uses but stopped short of backing full legalization. She also implemented an anti-truancy program that threatened the parents of kids who cut classes with fines or even jail time.

Critics point out both policies disproportionately affect minority communities.

Climate change and racist policies are “intrinsically linked,” so both have to be viewed together, Rogers-Wright said. “You can’t solve climate change without solving racism.”

Environmental record

Harris unveiled two environmental justice bills in recent weeks. Paired with a House bill from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., one would score legislation based on environmental harm in low-income and minority communities.

The other is a companion to a House bill that would counter a Supreme Court decision, Alexander v. Sandoval, that made it more difficult for communities to sue over pollution from nearby industries.

Elected to be San Francisco’s district attorney in 2003, Harris oversaw the creation of a unit within the DA’s office on environmental justice. As California attorney general,  Harris challenged Chevron over expanding a refinery in Richmond, near Oakland where Harris was born. She sued Southern California Gas over the massive methane gas leak in Aliso Canyon in 2015.

“Her inclusion on the ticket solidifies the centrality of climate and environmental justice on the ticket and also puts accountability for polluters more squarely in the crosshairs of [a] potential Biden-Harris administration,” Charlie Jiang, a Greenpeace campaigner, said.

On the primary campaign trail when she was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris often led with that legal record.

During a CNN climate-themed interview in September 2019, she pledged that as president she would support a Justice Department investigation of fossil fuel companies for their role in heating the world.

“They are causing harm and death in communities,” Harris said. “And there has been no accountability.”

She also said, inaccurately, that she sued Exxon Mobil Corp. for its role in deceiving the public about the dangers of and science behind human-caused climate change. While she opened an investigation of Exxon as attorney general, she did not sue the firm, like attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts did.

RL Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote, said Harris is appealing to younger voters, including those who feel Biden is not sufficiently reform-minded — people who think “normalcy wasn’t working for me,” said Miller, an incoming DNC member. “I think she fires up younger people.”