Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a lifelong environmentalist, a lawyer, an author, a cleantech backer, a falconer, a whitewater rafter, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a senior attorney and frequent spokesperson for NRDC, and a vigorous political campaigner. Other than that he’s kind of a layabout.
Last week NRDC celebrated its 40th anniversary — alongside its influential partner Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), which was celebrating its 10th — in lovely San Francisco, California. (Go Giants!) Kennedy was in town to speak at the summit and help celebrate. I caught up with him at the Fort Mason Center, where we chatted about … well, mostly about how things are going to hell. But also other stuff!
Q. Given there’s no prospect of a comprehensive climate/energy bill for two, four, who knows how many years, what should climate and energy folks be doing? Where should their energies and attentions be focused?
A. There are a lot of things that the federal government can do without going through Congress. Those are the lessons Bush and Cheney taught us. The Supreme Court has given the EPA the authority to put a price on carbon. We ought to be doing that. The administration also ought to be putting a cost on mercury from coal plants. They should altogether ban mountaintop-removal mining. They should try to force the carbon industry to internalize their costs the same way that they internalize their profits.
Then the administration needs to help construct a national grid system that functions as a marketplace for renewable power. We need a marketplace that turns every American into an energy entrepreneur and every home into a power plant, that powers our country on what Franklin Roosevelt called “America’s industrial genius.” We need a national program like Eisenhower launched in the 1950s and 60s to reconstruct our highway system and have it reach every community in the country.
Right now we have a marketplace for energy in this country that is rigged by rules that were written by the incumbents to favor the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most destructive, most addictive fuels from hell, rather than the cheap, clean, green, abundant, and wholesome fuels from heaven. We need a marketplace that does what a market is supposed to do: reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency and waste. If solar and wind and geothermal are allowed to compete, they will blow the competition out of the water — all they need is the infrastructure, which is the national marketplace that will allow them to sell that energy.
We have the technology. The problem is, we have a grid system that can’t carry these new currents about. Once that grid system is constructed, once we have rational rules that complement the public interest, you’re going to see a cascading transformation of the energy system in this country. We’ll see the same thing happening here that happened in Germany, where 85 percent of the farmers have solar panels on their roofs. In this country, farmland increases in value from about $400 an acre if you’re growing corn to about $3,000 an acre if you’re growing corn and harvesting wind from the same field. It’s good for everybody.
Not only that, it democratizes our energy system. If you have an economic system that’s owned by a few tycoons, the political system is also going to be a plutocracy. But if you have an energy system owned by hundreds of millions of Americans, it’s not only resilient, it’s not only more efficient, it also democratizes our society and keeps us out of foreign wars. If we can make this energy here, we don’t have to go to Saudi Arabia and genuflect to the sheiks — who despise democracy and are hated by their own people — and get in periodic wars that cost trillions of dollars. That three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year we’re now sending out of the country to pay for our oil addiction, if you just spent a fraction of that building a national grid in this country, we could be off of foreign oil overnight.
Q. What’s a citizen to do? The democratic process exhausted itself in failure.
A. Right now there are huge opportunities for citizens to participate in this by buying green energy, by getting involved in the new energy economy, by electing public officials who are going to support that economy. For the first time in history, environmentalists have industrialists and corporations on their side. They are big players, including some of the biggest corporations on the earth. GE, Vestas, Siemens, and many others are now manufacturing technologies that are competitive with oil and coal and nukes. We have the opportunity now to execute a coup d’etat against the carbon cronies, to displace them with much more efficient fuels and take away from them the $3 trillion we’re giving them every year.
Q. Since 2004, the last time you sat for an interview with Grist, we’ve had An Inconvenient Truth, “green” on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and two national sweep elections. Yet here we are with no more coherent national climate policy than we had in 2004. Did it all amount to nothing?
A. National climate policy is ultimately a victim of the national political calamity. What we’re looking at is the tragic collapse of American democracy.
A lot of it has to do with what’s happening in the media. George Bernard Shaw said that a journalist is somebody who can’t distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. The Citizens United case was the collapse of civilization, but the media ended up covering the Ground Zero Islamic center and Juan Williams and Charlie Sheen and giving very little attention to the impacts of this momentous case. The focus the media has now is on entertaining rather than informing the public. You cannot have democracy very long without an informed public. Americans today are the best entertained and probably the least informed people on the face of the earth.
In terms of energy policy, our policy’s gotten a lot better than it was during the Bush administration, when you had a federal government, controlled by Republicans, whose primary concern was giving $100,000 tax breaks to people who purchase Hummers, getting us embroiled in two wars rooted in our addiction to foreign oil. We now have a president who’s trying to get us out of those wars, who’s facilitating — not as quickly as I’d like to see it — the construction of a national [electrical] grid system, which will allow renewables to compete on something of a level playing field with the incumbents.
Q. Obama didn’t exactly throw himself behind the climate bill. The administration undercut negotiations at a few key points. Do you share others’ disappointment on that score?
A. It’s easy to second-guess the Obama administration. There’s a lot of stuff that maybe I would be doing differently, but the real problem is Republicans in Congress, who for the first time in American history are completely unwilling to negotiate in good faith. It is a group of extreme right-w
ing ideologues and narcissistic hacks who are putting their personal ambitions, their party ambitions, and partisanship ahead of the interests of our country. They will not allow Obama to have anything that looks like a victory. Even if it’s a bill they wrote, they won’t let him pass it.
He’s done a pretty good job in two years, all things considered. He’s closed down one war Republicans got us in. I believe he will close down the other war in two years. He’s given us a health care bill that people in this country have been trying to pass for at least 50 years. He saved the country from a major depression, by the account of virtually every independent economist. He gave us bankruptcy reform.
He did this in the face of Republicans in Congress who are simply unwilling to compromise or to give him any victories.
Q. Environmentalists weren’t able to muster much pressure on swing senators this year. Isn’t that somewhat damning toward the environmental movement?
A. That’s like blaming blacks for not getting civil rights, for Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws. I’d say the real culprits here are all the members of the American press who aren’t exposing the shenanigans of big corporations, who are not doing what they ought to do to inform the American public about how they’re being ripped off.
What a farce the Tea Party is. It’s a farce that is based completely on ignorance. The American press is covering it like a horse race rather than exposing it as the charade it really is, rather than exposing all of the claims and suppositions and precepts and slogans as fraudulent. Journalists are supposed to tell the truth. They’re not just supposed to report on different points of view if those points of view have no legitimacy. If a journalist wants, he can report the outlandish opinions of every crank and nutcase out there. There are people out there still who believe the Earth is flat and the Apollo moon landing was a hoax. Why not have them on TV every night?
Q. But the Tea Party is getting people elected to office.
A. They’re getting elected because the press has allowed that to happen. The environmental community in this country does not have a bullhorn like Fox News. We don’t have talk radio. We don’t have the advertising revenues of the Exxon Corporation or Chevron. Koch Industries has 100 times more money than all the environmental groups in our country put together. They can put together phony public interest groups, plus directly funnel money to their indentured servants in the political process, plus buy advertising that supports the corporate toadies on Fox News and talk radio. The entire advertising budget for the entire environmental community is probably less than $15 million dollars a year. The oil industry spends that much money in a single day on advertising. We’re a little, tiny David facing a giant Goliath, and the only hope that we have of reason prevailing in the marketplace of ideas is if the press acts as an honest broker. It’s completely abdicated that responsibility.
Q. Do you think the ability for everyone to effectively be their own media, to broadcast their own thoughts, holds any hope for an end run around corporate media?
A. So far we haven’t figured out how to make that work for democracy — to actually improve the quality of information people are getting. People certainly have access to huge amounts of information, but the quality of that information, the capacity to discern what’s vital, what’s frivolous and superfluous, is not there. You need journalists. That’s the big problem online. You need to pay actual people to dig and investigate and do journalistic tasks. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of people airing their gripes and opinions. That’s not journalism.
Q. What are you spending your time on now?
A. I’m doing a lot of green-tech businesses. I’ve employed all the tools of advocacy during the past quarter-century; Martin Luther King said the tools of advocacy are agitation, legislation, litigation, and education. I would add to that innovation, which may turn out to be one of the most powerful tools of advocacy. We have an opportunity now, using new technologies, to displace the evildoers, the oil industry and the coal industry, and turn this country back into a democracy.