Vice President Kamala Harris is sure to be remembered every March in Women’s History Month as the first woman and the first person of color to serve our nation in that position. As notable as those two facts are, she may grow to be known just as much for a single vote in the Senate that helped save the planet.
Last August, she broke the 50-50 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. That historic package, along with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Harris had crisscrossed the country in 2021 to build support for, give us a once-in-a-generation chance to protect the climate and build a cleaner, fairer economy.
Both laws bear Harris’ mark. For example, the two packages provide billions to replace diesel school buses with electric ones and an additional tax credit for purchases that counties and cities make on their own. As a senator, Harris repeatedly sponsored bills to electrify the nation’s school buses. Similarly, she championed proposals to help recovery in low-income communities that bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and climate; the IRA includes $60 billion directed to help those places.
Harris’ role inside and outside Washington on environmental issues isn’t surprising. When she was elected San Francisco’s district attorney 20 years ago, she started one of the first environmental justice units in a prosecutor’s office. When she moved on to be California’s attorney general, she fought to protect the state from fossil fuel interests, winning tens of millions in civil settlements and a criminal indictment against the pipeline company responsible for an oil spill off Santa Barbara, as well as suing the federal government to block fracking off the coast. It’s a path others have been able to follow in the years since (Columbia University keeps a database of attorneys general’s environmental actions now).
It’s a concern that runs deep. Like I did, Harris grew up in environmentally conscious northern California in a household deeply involved in the civil rights movement. She learned early that conservation was a good thing, so much so that she has joked she couldn’t understand as a youngster why people she knew said conservatives were bad.
The Biden-Harris administration has provided leadership. With Congress, they’ve given us the tools to clean up pollution, to boost communities’ resilience to climate related natural disasters like wildfires, and to create good jobs in clean manufacturing across the country in unprecedented ways. Through the infrastructure and inflation reduction packages, the United States can spend more than double protecting Earth than we spent putting astronauts on the moon.
“I think we all understand we have to be solutions driven. And the solutions are at hand,” Harris said at a climate summit earlier this month. “We need to make up for some lost time, no doubt. This is going to have an exponential impact on where we need to go.”
It’s time for the rest of us to pick up those tools and build. There are powerful interests that would be more than happy to let the inertia that allows people and places to be treated as disposable continue indefinitely. Our planet can’t afford that, and we have to marshal a movement to prevent it.
Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” published in January.