By BEN JEALOUS
Vice President Kamala Harris will surely be remembered each March in Women’s History Month as the first woman and first person of color to serve our nation in that position. As remarkable as those two facts are, she could become as well known for just one vote in the Senate as she helped save the planet.
Last August, he broke the 50-50 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. That landmark package, along with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Harris had criss-crossed the country for in 2021 to build support , has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the climate and build a cleaner, more equitable economy.
Both laws bear the hallmark of Harris. For example, the two packages provide billions to replace diesel school buses with electric ones and an additional tax credit for home-grown purchases by counties and cities. As a Senator, Harris has repeatedly sponsored bills to electrify the nation’s school buses. Similarly, he has supported proposals to help recovery in low-income communities that bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and climate; the IRA includes $60 billion intended to help those places.
Harris’ role in and outside Washington on environmental issues is not surprising. When she was elected District Attorney of San Francisco 20 years ago, she started one of the first environmental justice units in a prosecutor’s office. When she became California Attorney General, she fought to protect the state from fossil fuel interests, winning tens of millions in civil settlements and a criminal charge against the pipeline company responsible for an oil spill off Santa Barbara, plus to sue the federal government to block fracking off the coast. It’s a path others have been able to follow in subsequent years (Columbia University now maintains a database of Attorneys General’s environmental actions).
It’s a deep concern. Like me, Harris grew up in environmentally conscious Northern California in a family deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He learned early on that conservation was a good thing, so much so that he joked that as a young man he couldn’t understand why people he knew said conservatives were bad.
The Biden-Harris administration has provided the leadership. With Congress, they have given us the tools to clean up pollution, to increase communities’ resilience to climate-related natural disasters like wildfires, and to create good clean manufacturing jobs across the country in unprecedented ways. Through infrastructure and inflation reduction packages, the United States can spend more than twice as much to protect the Earth as we spent putting astronauts on the moon.
“I think we all understand that we need to be solution-driven. And solutions are at hand,” Harris said at a climate summit earlier this month. “We have to make up for some lost time, no doubt. This will have an exponential impact on where we need to go.” .
It’s time for the rest of us to take 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 cannot afford it and we must organize a movement to prevent it.
Ben Jealous is the new executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the country. He is professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Never Forget Our People Were Always Free.