Brigid Bergin: I'm Brigid Bergin in for Tanzina Vega. Welcome back to The Takeaway. Climate change is a major issue in this year's presidential election, but it's been largely overshadowed by other pressing issues like the pandemic. With Senator Kamala Harris as the VP pick for Joe Biden, we wanted to know about her track record on one of the biggest threats to our planet and something on the minds of so many voters. We called up Lisa Friedman, who covers climate change for The New York Times, and I asked her about senator Harris's climate platform during the primaries.
Lisa Friedman: During the primary when Senator Kamala Harris was running for president, we couldn't say the climate was a signature issue. She did come out with a climate plan later in her run, it called for a $10 trillion increase in spending over the course of a decade, a price on carbon with a dividend that's returned directly to households and a real focus on using her experience as a prosecutor, former Attorney General of California, to hold fossil fuel companies accountable, but as the senator and as a lawmaker, I think her long time focus has been on the issue of environmental justice, which was also folded throughout that plan.
Brigid: Do you get the sense of whether or not her positions on climate and environmental justice were taken into consideration when she was chosen as the VP? Do we even know that?
Lisa: It's a great question. It's hard to say, but I think what is accurate and noble is that she, in recent weeks, whether knowing that she would be the final pick or not, certainly she knew she was on the shortlist, really chose climate change and environmental justice as an issue to press hard on and make a name for herself on about. Less than a week before former Vice President Joe Biden named Kamala Harris to be his running mate, she rereleased sweeping legislation with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that focuses on environmental justice putting the environmental health that is of low-income communities and communities of color at the center of effort to reduce greenhouse gases.
Brigid: I understand that's the Climate Equity bill. Can you talk a little bit more about what that bill's trying to accomplish and where it currently stands?
Lisa: Because just to avoid, we get into jargon a lot and just to be clear on some of the elements that environmental justice covers when we speak of that, communities of color, low-income communities have been disproportionately victim of high levels of pollutions. Many studies over the years have shown that they are more likely to be situated in or near heavily polluting industrial sites, where the effects of climate change is a concern, they're often more likely to be in flood zones.
One of the key things that the Climate Equity Act would do, if enacted, is to create a dedicated office of climate environmental justice accountability within the White House and would require every piece of legislation or regulation to be rated on what kind of impact it would have on low-income communities. Where does it stand? Right now, it is a bill among hundreds. [chuckles] One can imagine that if there is a Biden-Harris White House, this will become part of a package of legislation that they push hard for Congress to pass.
Brigid: Lisa, just taking a step back for a moment, we're going through this moment in history, a global pandemic, how big of a role would you say conversations about climate policy are playing in this election? It seems like there are a lot of other issues overshadowing it right now.
Lisa: You know what? You would be surprised and we were surprised to find exactly the opposite. You're absolutely right. Often, when there are other big issues happening, climate change takes a backseat, but in May, researchers at Yale University and George Mason University released a survey that found that the concern about climate change remains very high even amid the pandemic and there was a lot of thinking that the effort to address the coronavirus was a powerful lesson in the need to listen to experts to avoid the next great catastrophe.
Brigid: How much do you think then given Biden selection of Senator Harris, she will influence his platform on climate?
Lisa: That's a great question. It seems to me having covered both of their climate plans and climate policies, they already are on close to the same page. Biden have been criticized by the progressive left on climate change for a long time. There was a lot of concern that his commitment on climate change wasn't where it needed to be, that his platform was thin. In July, he released his climate platform, 2.0 with a ton of detail. Fully half of his plan was focused on environmental justice. He's pledged to devote 40% of all clean energy funding, if elected, to low-income communities.
In significant ways, they're already on the same page. There are places where Kamala Harris has differed from Joe Biden and one significant place is fracking. She has come out in favor of a comprehensive ban on fracking, Joe Biden has called for a moratorium on new leases on federal lands, but not a full ban. Something like that. I think it's a wait-and-see.
Brigid: Are there any areas where Senator Harris falls short on climate in the eyes of activists or scientists, any criticism she's received in this space?
Lisa: I think the bulk of the criticism was before climate plan came out. The primary, it wasn't a signature issue for her. She didn't have a plan out early. I will say one person that really challenged my perceptions on that. I interviewed Mustafa Santiago Ali, who was former President Obama's point person on environmental justice, and noted in the course of talking to him that Kamala Harris seemed to have come to the issue of climate change late.
He said the way I'm looking at this is perhaps the wrong way that her focus like many in the environmental justice community has been on community-level efforts. I found that very enlightening for myself as a reporter that how do we look at who has been a leader on climate change in this space? Really, I think can differ and deserve new perspectives.
Brigid: Lisa Friedman covers climate change for the New York Times. Lisa, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Lisa: Thanks for having me.
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