Robert Kennedy Jr. talks to David Shuster

The lawyer is a lifelong advocate in the environmental movement whose interest was sparked in part by his father

David Shuster: You're very passionate about the environment. Where does this passion come from? When did it start?

Robert Kennedy Jr.: I always knew that I was going be an environmental advocate when I was very young. In fact, when I was 8 years old, I wrote a letter to my uncle, President (John F.) Kennedy, who was in the White House, asking to talk to him about pollution issues. I always saw pollution as theft, and I always thought, "Why should somebody be able to pollute the air, which belongs to all of us, or destroy a river or a waterway, which is supposed to belong to the whole community?"

The waterways, the rivers — they're part of the commons. The function of government is to protect the commons on behalf of all the people and make sure nobody can privatize it. But as democracy declines, as constitutional government declines and tyranny emerges, one of the first characteristics of an emerging tyranny is the tendency for powerful private interests within a society to begin privatizing the commons and stealing them from the public.

To me, it's the same as fighting for democracy. It's not just about fighting for the fishes and the birds. It's about fighting for all of the values that we believe in.

It's still a lot, though, for an 8-year-old to sort of be able to grasp. First of all, how did your uncle respond to you?

Well my uncle had me in. I wrote that because there were some plants on K Street in Washington, D.C., that were belching this very thick smoke, that when we went to church in Washington on Sunday, it would blacken our shirts. And then a stream that I played in when I was a little boy was called Pimmitt Run. It was a tributary to the Potomac, got buried by road developers, and the animals in it — the crayfish and the mud puppies, and there was an owl's nest up there — and it was all destroyed. So I wrote him the letter and said I wanted to write a book about pollution. He invited me to the White House, and I had a meeting with him in the Oval Office. I have pictures of myself in my shorty-shorts.

When you were 8 years old?

I was 8. I brought him a salamander that I'd caught the night before. But it had been killed by chlorine in the water that I brought him. We spent a lot of the meeting talking about the health of salamander. He said he didn't think it looked well, and I was saying how he's just sleeping. Afterward, we released him in the Rose Garden fountain, but he arranged for me to — I said I wanted to do a book on pollution, and he arranged for me to meet with Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, who was one of the great environmentalists in our nation's history,and also for Rachel Carson. She launched the modern environmental movement in our country. 

And it sounds like all this had quite an impact on you at a very sort of formative time in your life.

My father had a very big influence on us because he put us out in the wilderness so much, and he taught us how to whitewater kayak when we were very young. He'd take us fishing. He encouraged me in my interests in animals and wildlife. He took us mountain climbing and camping and took us to some of the most [beautiful] — to our national parks and to do whitewater on the Salmon River and the Snake and the Colorado, Little Colorado, the Yampa, the Green.

That was a time when people weren't doing that kind of thing. But he wanted to show us this wilderness and say, "This is part of your heritage. This is — American democracy is rooted in wilderness." That's what Frederick Jackson Turner, the great American historian said, that in America our democratic institutions are rooted in these vast tracts of wilderness and woodland. My father considered this part of our heritage and our purple mountain majesty. He saw the destruction of those things, the short-sighted destruction by industry as really an attack on American values and sovereignty.

Is global warming today the biggest threat? How do you think the politics now compares with that period in the 1960s in terms of addressing this kind of issue?

I think global warming is the gravest threat. With global warming, it's the product of a war between old energy — between the carbon cronies, who, by the way, could not stay in business in a true free market capitalism.

Because these new technologies like wind and solar can produce electrons and deliver them to their customers much more efficiently and much cheaper than the old energy economy. The only way that they maintain their foothold in our economy is through enormous subsidies and through the domination of the political process through the subversion of democracy.

If we could take the subsidies away from coal and oil, a trillion dollars of subsidies every year that they get, they couldn't survive in the marketplace. 

We need a marketplace that does what a market is supposed to do, which is to reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency and waste. Right now we have a marketplace that is governed by rules that were rigged by the carbon incumbents to reward the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most destructive, most addictive fuels from hell rather than the cheap, clean, green, wholesome and patriotic fuels from heaven.  

‘A feeling is not a fact, and our country is almost unique in people believing that global warming is not human caused. The rest of the world understands the connection. Science is facts.’

Robert Kennedy Jr.

What about the ordinary Americans, though, who believe that humans are not the cause of all of this? 

A feeling is not a fact, and our country is almost unique in people believing that global warming is not human caused. The rest of the world understands the connection. Science is facts. The science is very clear, and the science is consensual. 

The reason in this country that people don't believe — nearly 50 percent that don't accept the science behind global warming — is because of propaganda. The companies like Exxon and the Koch brothers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a conservative deliberate effort to persuade Americans that global warming is a hoax. They've used advertising. They set up these phony think tanks on Capitol Hill, and they stock them with these phony tobacco scientists that we call "biostitutes" and very slick PR flaks and voodoo economists and all of these, you know, this menagerie of kind of sociopaths who are taking money from the carbon industry in order …


Yes, sociopaths. People who are putting their own interests, their own financial interests against the lives and the health of the society as a whole, people who are essentially antisocial.

Does that apply to everybody who works in the coal and oil industry? That they're all bad people, they're all sociopaths?

No, of course not. Most people who work in the coal industry, for example, coal miners — there's about 80,000 coal miners left in America. And most of those people are living in communities where they're desperate for jobs, and this is what they're trained for, and this is the work that they're doing. And depending on what kind of coal mining, it can be high-paying work, or it can be very low-paying and dangerous work. Those are not bad people. 

Robert Kennedy Jr. with David Shuster

You wrote recently that corporations that deliberately, purposefully, maliciously and systematically sponsor climate lies should be given the death penalty. Explain what you mean, and is there precedent for this?

Corporations exist under charters that are issued by the state. It's essentially a license to do business in a particular state. In every state that issues corporate licenses, the license requires that the corporation function for the public interest and that they cause no harm.

If a corporation begins to cause harm or if they function against the public interest or conduct themselves in ways that are contrary to the public interest, the secretary of state or the attorney general of that state has the right to withdraw their charter. 

This has been done before. [In] 1998 the Republican attorney general of the state of New York, Dennis Vacco, gave the corporate death penalty to the Tobacco Institute and to some of the other front groups for the tobacco industry.

‘I started taking drugs when I was young, soon after my dad died. It was a struggle for me that I dealt with successfully when I was 29 years old.’

Robert Kennedy Jr.

I want to ask you a little bit about your life story. In the early 1980s you were busted for heroin use. 

I started taking drugs when I was young, soon after my dad died. It was a struggle for me that I dealt with successfully when I was 29 years old.

A lot of people may not necessarily draw the connection between the unbelievable things you had to witness and go through as a child, the death of your uncle, the death of your father and perhaps the connection with drug use. 

I don't really think that it had much to do with it. There's many, many people who have been through a lot worse things than I went through. I lost my dad when I was 14 and to violence. But there are millions of people living in the worst parts of our country and the most desperate parts of our country, in Harlem and Watts and Appalachia and the migrant worker fields in the Southern states or in Southern California, who lose their parents to disease or to violence that is a direct result of their poverty and desperation. Those kids don't have many of the advantages that I had. I had tragedy, but everybody has tragedy in their lives. 

You also spent time in a prison in Puerto Rico for some of your activism

I was representing 10,000 people on the island of Vieques who were being bombed by the Navy, and they were experiencing devastating impacts … I represented the people on the island to try to get the Navy to change some of its practices. We won our litigation, but the Navy continued.

The people on the island, led by the mayor of Vieques, asked me to engage in a civil disobedience, which I did. At the time, I said, "How long do you think they'll put me in prison?" And they said, "Probably two or three days," which was OK. I ended up having to go to jail for 34 days, to maximum security prison in Puerto Rico. It was for me a wonderful experience.


It was very quiet. I had no cellphone. I had nobody asking me to make decisions. I got to read books that I had not, that had been sitting on my shelf for 20 years. It was like almost going on — like a Catholic, religious retreat, which I used to go on when I was a kid.

There were 140 people on the cellblock, and about half of them, about 60 of them when I got there were political prisoners. The rest of them were gang members and people who had committed in some cases heinous crimes. But this kind of gestalt developed in the prison where we'd all watch the TV every night and watch the coverage on the protests against Vieques, and it kind of politicized everybody in that prison. It brought them together, and it was really kind of an extraordinary process watching that, watching people who never saw themselves part of a political process all of a sudden identifying with the problems of the people of the island of Vieques.

The United States is involved in another war in the Middle East. This time, airstrikes in Syria. There's the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. What do you make of the U.S. policy and how Barack Obama's administration is handling it?

I think the Obama administration inherited a dismal situation. I think the original problem was us going into Iraq in the first place, which I think was a monumental mistake, probably the worst foreign policy mistake in American history, to attack a country that had not attacked us and had posed no threat to us.

I think it's a bad use of American military power. I think that the kind of problems that need to be solved in the Mideast are problems that don't need more guns and weapons and bombs.

I think probably the more appropriate response to 9/11 would have been a commitment to George W. Bush to go before the American people and say, "We're embroiled in wars in the Mideast because we're addicted to oil, and this is destroying our capitalist economy. We're borrowing a billion dollars a day from nations that don't share our values in order to import a billion dollars of oil a day, in many cases from agents that are outright hostile to us." 

We are in essence funding both sides of the war against terror through our addiction to oil. The solution is not to start drop bombing bombs on people. The solution is to get off oil in this country. 

We don't have to bomb wedding parties and spy on people with drones. We don't have to erode our own Constitution. Why are we doing that as Americans? 

Do you see anybody in the political landscape today who is asking those questions? Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren or Jim Webb or another?

I don't know. Maybe Elizabeth Warren is. I think Bernie Sanders is. I think even Rand Paul is asking those particular questions.

Fair to assume you wouldn't necessarily be a Rand Paul supporter, though.

No, I wouldn't be Rand Paul supporter. But I believe that some of his philosophy has a lot of appeal to me. 

Would you support Hillary Clinton again, should she run in 2016?

I love Hillary Clinton, and that doesn't mean that I agree with everything that she says. I think that we have gone down a bad road in this country toward a kind of a warfare state and a national security state.

That the real damage that was done to us by the 9/11 attacks was the damage that we did to ourselves basically treating the Bill of Rights of the United [States] — I'm a strict constitutional constructionist, and I believe that the Bill of Rights are sacred and the Republicans want to treat them and the militarists want to treat them as if they're a luxury we can no longer afford in our country and that we can suspend habeas corpus and that we can torture people and that we can spy on our own citizens and do warrantless wiretapping and investigations and that we can suspend the ancient right to jury trial and that we can confine people from all over the world. I don't think it's good for America. I don't think it's good for our security. 

When I was a little boy in 1965, my father took me to Europe, to France and Germany and to Poland and Italy and many other countries. And everywhere we went, we were met — even in the communist countries, where the governments tried to hide that we were there — we would still be met by spontaneous crowds. Some hundreds of thousands of people would come out onto the street waving tiny American flags and cheering for my father as the surrogate for the United States of America.

They loved our country. They were starved for our leadership, from all authority. They saw America as the leader of the world. They wanted our leadership. They didn't want our bullying, and they knew the difference. And in Latin America, in Africa and Asia, my father encountered the same kind of crowds.

Because the idealism about America's mission in the world as an exemplary nation, as a model, a template for the greatest values of humanity — and that's what we represented. Today those people no longer respect our country. Our country is widely hated. Many people want to come here for the wealth, but it doesn't mean that they admire our values anymore.

That, to me, is one of the greatest tragedies of my lifetime, that we've lost so much of our global prestige and our moral authority. And we did it to ourselves. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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