Presidential candidate Kamala Harris supports holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate impactsSen. Kamala Harris became the latest presidential candidate to support suing the fossil fuel industry to hold it accountable for its role in climate change. Photo credit: Josh Edelson/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

Sen. Kamala Harris became the latest Democratic presidential candidate to include holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate change among her policies to tackle the issue if she is elected. 

During a televised town hall event Wednesday night, Harris, a former prosecutor and attorney general of California, said she would work to hold the industry liable for the damage it has caused to the climate.

“It’s not about debating the science. It’s about taking on powerful interests,” Harris said. “Let’s take them to court.” 

Harris released the details of her climate plan earlier Wednesday. The plan calls for a $10 trillion investment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. One of the plan’s five pillars is holding polluters accountable. According to the plan, “Kamala’s Administration will hold accountable those responsible for environmental degradation, the misinformation campaign against climate science, and creating harm to the health and wellbeing of current and future generations.” 

While the plan does not explicitly mention prosecuting fossil fuel companies or pursuing liability litigation, Harris clarified during the town hall that she would support suing the companies that waged a tobacco-style disinformation campaign to undermine climate science. 

“This is what we did to the tobacco companies. We sued them, we took them to court,” Harris said in response to an audience question from consultant David Leon Zink. In drawing the connection between the tobacco industry’s campaign to deny the health impacts of smoking and the fossil fuel industry’s effort to undermine climate science, Zink mentioned that a family member died from smoking-related illness and he also lost his home to the Camp Fire that ravaged the town of Paradise, Calif. last year. 

Harris, after briefly reflecting on the Camp Fire tragedy that claimed 85 lives, brought the discussion back to her commitment to pursuing corporate accountability.  

“They have to be held accountable. These are bad behaviors. They are causing harm and death in communities,” she said. 

CNN’s Erin Burnett followed up with a pointed question. “So Sen. Harris would you sue them, would you sue ExxonMobil?” 

 “Yes!” Harris responded. “I have sued ExxonMobil.” 

Harris alluded to bringing litigation against big oil companies like Chevron and BP as California AG. These cases were tied to environmental violations rather than climate impacts, but Harris has more recently signaled her support for climate liability investigations and lawsuits. In 2016, as California attorney general she initially indicated that she would pursue an investigation into ExxonMobil’s alleged climate fraud, following her counterparts in Massachusetts and New York. She did not follow through on that promise as she ran for her Senate seat. As a senator, she has co-signed an amicus brief in support of Oakland and San Francisco suing fossil fuel companies to pay for climate damages.

Harris is not alone in supporting taking legal action against the fossil fuel industry. Bernie Sanders said he would hold it accountable in court, including pursuing potential criminal liability, in his climate plan

During the town hall discussion on Wednesday, Julian Castron, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and former vice president Joe Biden both referenced polluter accountability in response to audience questions. 

“We wouldn’t be afraid of taking these folks to court,” Castro said.   

In a question to Biden, a 27 year-old doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, Isaac Larkin, said fossil fuel corporations have “waged a decades long campaign of lying to the public about the science that has brought us to a crisis that threatens the entire human race. 

“How can we trust you to hold these corporations and executives accountable for their crimes against humanity?”  

Biden said he would support holding the industry accountable, “just like we did the tobacco industry who lied to the public, just like we did the opioid industry.” He said he would do that not through litigation but by “changing the law.” 

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