By Christa Martin
For the first time in its seven-year history, the Forecastle Festival brings an avowed juggernaut of the American environmental movement to bolster this year’s activism component. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will deliver the festival’s keynote address at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 27, on the West Stage.
When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was born he hit the jackpot — brains, looks, fame, opportunity and affluence were his to inherit. Many would say that he’s done well with what he’s been handed, that he’s etched out his own role in the Kennedy tribe as a steadfast and outspoken environmental lawyer.
As the son of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, grandson of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, nephew of President John F. Kennedy and cousin to JFK Jr., he sits in the inner circle of what some call American royalty. The Kennedys are history makers. Dramatic accomplishments and tragic experiences have marked this family and created a genus of sorts, which also includes Senator Edward Kennedy, newswoman Maria Shriver and their inherited in-law — the California governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger — just to name a few.
Robert Jr., who, like his late father, is also called Bobby, stands strong with another Kennedy tradition: The diligent fight for continued democracy in America. Yet unlike many of his relatives who have forged ahead in the political realm, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has chosen apolitical pursuits. He’s a busy man: Kennedy is chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance, a grassroots organization that advocates for protection of the country’s waterways from all manner of pollutants. He’s also at the helm of Hudson Riverkeeper, a watchdog group that aims to keep the Hudson pollution-free — he works as its chief prosecuting attorney. He’s a prolific writer and speaker, and a professor at Pace University School of Law. He also continues to work as an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Kennedy is especially passionate about global warming. While more conservatively minded citizens might be inclined to still question the existence of man-made global warming, Kennedy squashes those skeptics. He pledges no allegiance to a particular political party when he wrestles environmental issues, but it’s no surprise that his viewpoints often align with the Democratic side of things. Again, he’s a Kennedy. They often do things to the left of center.
In this interview he moves the dirt on global warming and discusses why President Bush will go down as the worst environmental president in our nation’s history.
Q: What do you think is the biggest environmental concern of today?
A: The biggest concern is George Bush, and if you ask any of the leaders in the environmental community five years ago what was the biggest concern, they’d give you a range of issues from global warming, habitat destruction and overpopulation. Today, they’ll all tell you the same thing — that it’s this White House. In every way it’s the greatest threat to not only Americans, but the environment. I’ve been very disciplined over 20 years as an environmental advocate, supporting both sides. But you can’t talk honestly about the environment in any context today without speaking critically of this president. This is the worst environmental White House we’ve had in history. They’re in the process of dismantling 30 years of environmental law.
Q: Why will President Bush go down as the worst environmental president in our nation’s history?
A: Well, if you look at the NRDC’s website, you’ll see over 400 environmental rollbacks listed there that have been promoted or implemented by this White House over the last four years as part of a deliberate, concerted effort to eviscerate 30 years of environmental law. The stealth attack the White House has used — all kinds of clever machinations — to conceal its radical agenda from the American public, but including Orwellian rhetoric, and also … when they want to destroy the forest they call it the Healthy Forest Act. When they want to destroy the air they
call it Clear Skies. Most insidiously, they’ve put polluters in charge of virtually all the agencies that are supposed to be protecting us from pollution.
Q: How many years do you think it will take for the environment to recover after the Bush administration?
A: Well, some things will never recover, but it’s hard to tell the future. It depends on what type of an administration we get. If we get campaign finance reform and if we get journalistic reform in this country, the chances are much better.
Q: You said some things may not recover.
A: There have been 1,200 miles of rivers buried by mountaintop mining. Those rivers won’t ever see the light of day again. The administration will have destroyed an area the size of Delaware — (in) the Appalachian Mountains — that will never recover for tens of thousands of years.
Q: What do you think will happen to us if we don’t make global changes?
A: The most pressing problem is global warming. We have the technology today to avert its most catastrophic impact. This thing that we need is political will and all the things that we ought to be doing to avert global warming are things that we ought to be doing anyway. To ensure economic prosperity, we need to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and minimize our entanglements with Middle Eastern dictators, to improve our balance of trade to give our children cleaner air and water.
Q: What can be done on a very practical level to stop global warming?
A: I think we need fuel economy standards that get us up to 40 miles a gallon. One-mile per-gallon improvement will yield more oil than two Arctic National Wildlife Refuges. Eight miles per gallon in our fuel economy would yield more oil than we’re importing from the Persian Gulf. We could eliminate Persian Gulf imports by improving fuel efficiency.
Q: Some people in the Republican Party don’t buy the global warming thing. What do you say to them when they say that it might be due to a natural cyclical warming of the Earth?
A: Unfortunately there’s been a huge propaganda campaign that’s in many ways been accepted by a gullible press. There’s virtually no global independent scientist or mainstream scientist left who will agree with that point of view. That point of view is voiced by a marginalized and infinitesimally tiny minority of scientists. Twenty-five hundred top meteorological and climatological scientists in the world signed onto the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s pronouncement that global warming is real and it’s happening right now, that we are causing it and that its impacts are going to be catastrophic. So you can’t find a mainstream scientist anywhere in the world that’s on industry payroll, but unfortunately we have a gullible press in our own country and reporters who don’t do their jobs. And in fact, the PEW Foundation did a survey that showed that reporters are just lazy on this issue, that 50 percent of the stories on global warming include statements by both sides — by this minority group. That’s the same thing as saying that there’s still doubt that cigarettes cause cancer. The science is much clearer today. It’s just that journalists who write about this stuff don’t end up investigating it.
Q: Do you think these people are in denial?
A: I think the industry has paid hundreds of millions of dollars into a propaganda campaign that works. It persuades the press. One of the guys who designed this campaign … and I’ve written extensively about him, came originally from the tobacco industry. … It’s a public relations product. As long as you can convince people that there is still a debate. … So long as the press keeps on swallowing this and presenting it to the public as if there is still some argument, which there isn’t. All you have to do is go out and look at the mainstream science on it. There’s no argument. There are literally tens of thousands of studies that all confirm that this is happening. I mean, look — the Arctic ice cap has lost 40 percent of its thickness in 20 years. The summer ice will be gone within 20 years. The glaciers are melting on every continent.
Now, you can follow Rush Limbaugh and say there is still doubt about whether the temperatures are changing … but the most sensitive thermometer in the world is a glacier. It doesn’t lie and the glaciers are melting everywhere. Look at these storms we’re getting — Katrina and all the other ones. How long can you be in denial for?
Q: What do you imagine will be the environmental concerns in five years, 10 years, 20 years from now?
A: Global warming, but you know, mercury is a big issue. In 19 states it’s now unsafe to eat any freshwater fish in the state. And asthma. One out of every four black children in our city (New York) has asthma. It’s an epidemic. All these issues aren’t going to remain as issues, but global warming will remain as an issue.
The biggest problem is democracy. Without a strong democracy and an independent press that’s willing to speak truth to power, you’re not going to get a clean environment. You’re going to get basically the corporate entities that want to control our air and water, privatize our air and water, and be able to get away with it. The biggest reform we need to start off with is to bring back the Fairness Doctrine that Ronald Reagan abolished in 1988, and that began the decline of the American press and the decline of ethics in journalism.
Q: Do you think anything can be done to reduce the level of partisanship in environmental issues?
A: I’m non-partisan and I support Democrats or Republicans. I’ll oppose them too. (The environment) is not a partisan issue. There’s no such thing as Republican children or Democrat children.