VP Harris taking on climate change at COP28
BY HAISTEN WILLIS
After days of confusion, Vice President Kamala Harris will take on her latest role as a Biden administration climate ambassador.
President Joe Biden attended the last two United Nations climate change conferences, but the White House demurred on his attendance this week before finally revealing that Harris would go in his stead. That puts the embattled vice president on a big platform to speak about one of the Democratic Party’s top priorities.
“She’s en route right now to Dubai for COP28, and she’s representing President Biden and the administration there,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said Friday.
“Throughout her engagements, the vice president will make clear that the Biden-Harris administration is delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda in history.”
The 28th annual U.N. climate summit, known as COP28 because it’s the “conference of the parties” to the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, is being held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Harris will be accompanied on the journey by special envoy John Kerry, national climate adviser Ali Zaidi, and senior adviser John Podesta, though she will likely receive the most attention of the U.S. delegation.
For Harris, the trip represents a new focus area to go along with her prominent roles in promoting abortion access, gun violence, voting rights, and Latino outreach. She was also given a role early in the Biden administration combating the root causes of illegal immigration, though that is a task she has arguably shied away from since the announcement.
While the new climate role may project growing confidence in Harris’ abilities, it could also risk overextending her, argues David Greenberg, Rutgers University history, journalism, and media studies professor.
“Vice presidents who have distinguished themselves in the public mind have done so with one or two or maybe three high-profile issues — think [former vice president Al] Gore with the environment, reinventing government, and the ‘ loose nukes’ problem,” Greenberg said, “or [Dick] Cheney with counterterrorism and the war. I see nothing wrong with Harris going to the climate conference, but it does not substantially alter her public image.”
On the other hand, Saint Louis University law professor Joel Goldstein argues that Harris should be seen as simply carrying forward the administration’s work as needed rather than pulling from a set portfolio of issues.
“She has also handled a number of important diplomatic assignments which dovetail with administration’s foreign and national security priorities, including speaking at the Munich summit twice, five trips to Asia, and five to Europe,” Goldstein said. “This assignment, as well as her recent ASEAN assignment, reflect Harris handling a matter which President Biden did in the past, which reflects his confidence in her.”
Unfortunately for Harris, the voting public’s confidence in her may not be as high.
Harris’ approval rating is an abysmal 36.5%, per the RealClearPolitics average, and there has been rampant speculation that she may be cast aside whenever Biden leaves the political stage.
Yet even if Harris remains unpopular in polling, it may be best to embrace her publicly, says University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato.
“Harris has been more visible over the past six months as the White House ramps up for the reelection campaign,” he said. “To me, it makes sense since you can’t change someone’s image by hiding them.”
In the past, unpopular vice presidents could be cast off to rural areas for low-profile assignments, Sabato adds. In the internet age, there’s no place to hide.
“Harris is going to have an unusually large target on her back, so the White House has her dealing with big issues in the spotlight,” he said. “It helps to project Harris as ready to step up if the situation calls for it.”
On that note, Harris came up in a big and unexpected way during the high-profile debate between Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif. While DeSantis was riffing on Democrats keeping schools closed for too long during the pandemic, Newsom called him out for mispronouncing Harris’s name.
“And by the way, it’s not Kam-AH-la Harris. Shame on you,” Newsom said. “It’s Kama-la Harris, Madame Vice President to you.”
Given the rumblings that Newsom could be looking to unseat Harris as the Democratic heir apparent, the aside could be seen as a show of solidarity from the governor on behalf of his fellow Californian.
In Dubai, Harris is expected to deliver the national statement at COP28, a conference that has a goal of decreasing emissions to prevent the Earth from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius. She will also meet with regional leaders concerning the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war.
The war and climate change are big priorities for progressives, a group Biden has been slipping with in recent weeks. A YouGov poll, for instance, found that “climate change and the environment” was important to 70% of respondents this month, the same percentage as the start of Biden’s administration in January 2021.
Vice presidents traditionally are sent out to appeal to a party’s base, which fits well in this case with Harris speaking at a climate change conference.
Should she turn in a strong performance in Dubai, it could help shore up Harris’s support among progressives in 2024 and, potentially, beyond.
DIGITAL EXTRA | NATIONAL POLITICS
The Gazette, Colorado Springs