Vice President Kamala Harris stood in a Zambian lettuce field last week and said it was a powerful example of how to fight against the “existential threat” of climate change.
It was the last stop on Harris’ three-nation trip across Africa, one in which she made climate change policy a top priority and a topic she discussed at length with the leaders of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. It’s part of a long-running pattern for Harris, who frequently turns foreign policy into climate policy and has used overseas trips to create a leadership role on climate that contrasts with her secondary role in domestic climate politics.
“Her best moments as vice president have come abroad,” said presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky. “They highlight her strength as a speaker. Whether it’s less of the glare of the partisan press or she feels more comfortable, she’s done her best in those moments, she speaks more freely in those moments.”
Harris stood among green peppers and lettuce in Zambia because a consistent part of her international message is how to better address food insecurity worsened by climate change. The farmers toiling the fields where Harris spoke were using a form of climate-smart agriculture — including phone apps that read drought levels in plant leaves — to create a sustainable crop yield that can withstand the ravages of the continent’s rapid warming.
As she traveled, Harris garnered more than $7 billion in financial commitments from the United States and global private sector for climate adaptation, resilience and mitigation. The money is needed because climate change can act like a threat multiplier of human crises, Harris said, but improved food security will reduce suffering.
“Extreme weather causes water scarcity and food insecurity, and if people don’t have food to eat where they live, they are likely to leave that place and often move in large numbers to a place that may not speak the same language or hold the same customs or culture, which invariably might lead to conflict,” Harris said.
Harris’ unique approach to climate policy is rooted in places like the Zambian farm. It’s where she is viewed as a climate leader unlike her experience at home, where her polling approval struggles to rise above 40 percent.
At home, Harris is relegated to using the power and publicity of the vice president’s office to champion the administration’s climate victories, especially the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. She travels to college campuses to tell young voters how the administration is addressing one of their most pressing issues. And she attends groundbreaking ceremonies for clean-energy manufacturing facilities to highlight IRA funding — as she will Thursday at a solar manufacturing facility in Georgia.
Abroad, Harris is more than a supporting player. She’s the international climate diplomat rallying countries to save the planet and brokering new bilateral climate agreements, investments and strategies.
Though the role gets scant attention in U.S. media, Harris has spent the two years of her vice presidency traveling the globe to rally world leaders around climate policy. In the last few months, she brought the issue to the forefront of the Munich Security Conference and highlighted a new critical-minerals processing plant in the Philippines.
Harris intentionally focused on climate mitigation and adaptation throughout her Africa trip to demonstrate that the Biden administration’s climate policy translates to the local level, said Ike Irby, the vice president’s chief climate adviser. That includes the Zambian farm.
“There are low-tech and high-tech solutions, and everybody across the world can be a model for them,” Kirby said. “She is continuing to amplify the work that is being done in both the United States and abroad on climate solutions.”
Ever since Vice President Walter Mondale traveled to China in the late 1970s to improve trade relations, presidents have outsourced key foreign policy to their vice presidents, said Chervinsky, the historian and the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”
It’s an area where a vice president can be the most effective, because it’s harder for presidents to travel abroad, and it’s typically less partisan than domestic politics, Chervinsky said. Other vice presidents, especially Dick Cheney, have used their foreign policy work to drive U.S. domestic policy.
In Africa, Harris positioned the United States as a powerful foil to China, which has spent years building its influence on the continent to gain control over natural resources that are key to clean energy.
The message was especially apparent in Tanzania, where Harris touted the United States’ purchasing power and need for more critical minerals. She announced that the U.S.-supported Lifezone Metals project in Tanzania will be the first processing facility on the African continent to produce the nickel used in electric vehicle batteries. Lifezone Metals has a strategic partnership with TechMet Ltd., a critical metals company part-owned by the U.S. government, and will also source other critical minerals needed in clean energy components.
Harris’ climate messaging did not come without pushback.
Half of the continent still lacks electricity. Extreme poverty and crushing debt have slowed economic development. African leaders told Harris they want to increase oil and gas drilling to boost their economies and find a path toward self-reliance.
Speaking alongside Harris at a news conference, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said he plans to transform the country, in part, with new oil and gas drilling. That will “give us the best opportunity to derive maximum benefit from our abundant natural resources, enable us to create a firmer foundation for meaningful long-term economic and commercial relations with the United States of America,” Akufo-Addo said.
As she did elsewhere, Harris pointed to new jobs that can be created in Ghana in a clean-energy economy.
“Part of my trip here is actually to also recognize the opportunities, then, that exist in this transition to what we call a ‘clean energy economy,’ a green economy,” she said at the news conference. “And the opportunities that exist for American private interest and the American government to also share in Africa’s leadership on this in terms of helping to contribute the resources to what are very innovative practices that are occurring here on the continent.”
Engaging more frequently and more directly on the issue abroad can translate into more of a domestic role in climate policy, said Chervinsky, the presidential historian.
Climate policy is an area where Harris can carve out a powerful role for herself, not as part of her short-term portfolio, but as a longer-term issue, the historian said. It’s also a key way for Harris to reach the young voters that will be a key to her political future, Chervinsky added.
“It’s a savvy political decision to be focusing on an issue that is very important to a very important subset of voters to try to build enthusiasm for those measures and demonstrate that one person is really particularly focused on those issues and would hopefully encourage them to support her in the future,” Chervinsky said.