The Once and Future Kennedy
High among the list of potentials is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – a seasoned environmental lawyer and advocate who carries the legacy of his uncle, President John Kennedy, and his father, Senator Bobby Kennedy. Despite his remarkable family pedigree and considerable personal accomplishments, it’s Kennedy passion for the health of his children and for the health of this planet that are his greatest strengths.
I had the opportunity to hear Kennedy at the Sustainable Operations Summit in Vancouver a few days before the U.S. election. He challenged the public to question the implied position of the energy industry that economic and environmental policies are mutually exclusive.
”The environment and the economy are intertwined,” said Kennedy. “Nature is the infrastructure of our community. We need to protect this infrastructure, which is the common wealth of our community, so that our children have the same opportunities that we had.”
“If we can resolve those issues, then everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We are not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes. We are protecting it for us. The economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”
Contrary to what the oil industry would have everyone believe, reducing carbon emissions would not kill the already faltering U.S. economy. Kennedy cited U.S. public opinion during the debate over the abolition of slavery, when 25 percent of the energy used by industry was provided by slave labor.
”Rather than collapsing the US economy, abolition forced the economy to move much more quickly,” said Kennedy. “The fear was that the economy would crater. Instead it exploded exponentially during a period we now call the industrial revolution.”
Kennedy sees the U.S. addiction to carbon fuels as a principle drag on the economy. “We are borrowing a billion dollars a day to feed the addiction to foreign oil from countries that are hostile. We are hemorrhaging our wealth.” In addition, the U.S. is providing $ 1.5 trillion in subsidies to the oil industry, money that could be much better spent developing local, sustainable energy.
Kennedy cited several examples of nations that have decarbonized their economies with tremendous success. In 1970, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe, importing 100 percent of its energy in the form of coal and oil. The government decided to shift to harvesting local geothermal energy. It took just 15 years to become 4th richest country in Europe (by GDP) with 90 percent of its energy coming from geothermal. Sweden decided to not only decarbonize, but also to phase out nuclear power in 1996. Harvesting wind, tidal, geothermal and waste energy has made Sweden the 6th richest country in Europe (by GDP) according to Kennedy.
Brazil, once a “have not” country, now exports its energy surpluses because it switched from oil to renewable ethanol derived from biomass left over from harvesting sugar cane.
Kennedy dismissed the argument that solar and other renewable power sources can be very harmful to the environment.
“The environmental damage caused by building solar farms is a fraction of the damage done every year by coal farming in the Appalachians,” said Kennedy.
The only barrier to creating a sustainable energy economy is subsidies to the incumbents.
“We need to create a marketplace where people can sell their energy back to the grid,” said Kennedy. “We need an economy based on American ingenuity rather than Saudi oil.”
Kennedy pointed to his own experience. Four years ago he was spending $ 2200 a year to fuel his mini-van. Today his Prius costs about $ 1000.
“That’s $ 1200 a year in my pocket,” he said. “What would it do to the US economy if everybody had an extra $ 1200 to spend on other things? Good environmental policy is the same as good economic policy. It creates good jobs and preserves the assets of the community.” In addition, Kennedy estimates the U.S. could save $ 600 billion a year in avoided costs because of reduced air pollution.
“Am I going to watch my children gasping for air because some lobbyist gave money to the US government?” he said. “This is not just about the destruction of the environment. This is about the subversion of American society.”
Kennedy concluded by citing our moral responsibility to future generations.
“We are part of the continuum, part of something bigger than ourselves. Our environment connects us to the 10,000 generations who were here before laptops,” he said. “We can do well by doing good.”