Robert F. Kennedy Jr. environmental advocate

Peter Dykstra: WTF RFK Jr.?

An environmental leader’s bizarre journey from hero to pariah

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was 14 when his father was murdered during the 1968 Presidential campaign. As a child of America’s most storied political dynasty of the 20th Century, he could not have avoided a high-profile life even if he wanted to.


RFK Jr. became a superstar environmental lawyer, first for New York City, then for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He investigated and litigated cases for the Hudson Riverkeeper, helping to bring the local group to worldwide renown. Municipal landfills, industrial waste sites, and corporate giants like Exxon and General Electric soon found it much harder to pollute unchallenged. News organizations discovered a next-generation Kennedy.

Riverkeeper

In 1997, I produced a documentary on Bobby and The Riverkeeper, John Cronin, for Japan’s TV Asahi.

I spent a day with RFK Jr as he took water samples from an outfall that emptied into a drinking water reservoir in the New York suburbs. I was impressed by how he simultaneously kept his focus on the sample jars that carried the day’s mission, and the long, daunting tasks that awaited the environmental movement.

RFK Jr.'s divergent path

Robert F Kennedy Jr.

Daniel Schwen, via Wikimedia Commons

Around the year 2005, RFK Jr began to make two significant breaks with much of the mainstream environmental movement.

An ambitious proposal for a windfarm along Cape Cod’s South Shore divided some locals. Blue-collar fishermen joined some well-heeled sailors in opposing Cape Wind. They found an enthusiastic funder in Bill Koch, estranged brother of Charles and David Koch; and a dynamic mouthpiece in Bobby Kennedy.

RFK Jr said he was sticking up for the fishermen. Green colleagues, feeling betrayed, saw a cynical effort to preserve the view from the Kennedy family compound. After more than 16 tortuous back-and-forth years, Cape Wind’s backers threw in the towel.

Also in 2005, Bobby Kennedy lent his name to a cause whose roots in science denial would end up costing tens of thousands of lives. Concern over a potential link between vaccines and autism went viral (sorry) despite a thorough discrediting within the larger science community. RFK Jr’s more mainstream links began to vanish. By 2017, his name disappeared from the mastheads of NRDC, the Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance groups, the Pace University Environmental Law Clinic, and more.

Anti-vaxxer

His other legal work continued, including winning a whopping nine-figure judgement against Monsanto and its glyphosate herbicide in 2018.

These days, RFK Jr. is Counsel at Morgan & Morgan, which bills itself as the largest personal injury law firm in the U.S.

But last weekend, Bobby Kennedy took another big step into the rabbit hole: In describing how COVID vaccine advocates have conquered the world, he played the Hitler card:

RFK Jr. told an anti-vaxx rally at the Washington Monument that Anne Frank, the noted Holocaust victim, had it better than today’s employees facing a vaccine mandate.

'Reprehensible and insensitive'

RFK drew predictably strong criticism. His tweet also drew one of the harshest slap-downs in the brief-but-colorful history of Twitter: Kennedy’s wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, came after him like nobody’s business.

Hines ripped her hubby’s “reprehensible” remarks, for which he apologized.

Progress, with baggage

(Major irony alert: Hines’s best-known TV role is that of Larry David’s wife in the angst-ridden hit comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

And whatever baggage is attached to his anti-science quackery and bizarre Hitler-baiting, the world is now home to hundreds of River-, Bay-, Lake Keepers and more, thanks to RFK Jr and his colleagues.

So – Larry David joke scouts take note—we may just have to take our medicine on the curious case of Bobby Kennedy, Jr.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo credit of RFK Jr. courtesy Presse Online, via Pixabay.

Why many plastic promises are just greenwashing

Based on current trends, efforts to improve waste management may be overshadowed by the production and consumption of virgin plastic.
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Food, feed and fuel: global seaweed industry could reduce land needed for farming by 110m hectares, study finds

Scientists identify parts of ocean suitable for seaweed cultivation and suggest it could constitute 10% of human diet to reduce impact of agriculture.

When will we hit peak fossil fuels? Maybe we already have

Kingsmill Bond, energy analyst and author, describes the circumstances that hastened the transition of the electricity sector—plus four reasons he’s optimistic about our planet’s future.

Google empowered climate crisis deniers
Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Google let Daily Wire advertise to climate crisis deniers, research shows

Exclusive: Data shared by the Center for Countering Digital Hate shows that Ben Shapiro’s news site paid for climate crisis denial search term ads.

greenwashing in fashion
UK in Italy/Flickr

'Vegan,' 'sustainable': How to spot greenwashing in fashion

Virtuous proclamations and campaigns from clothing brands can often amount to greenwashing, or in some cases, “clearwashing,” where the information doesn’t tell consumers much.
heavy metals in baby food
pixydust8605/Flickr

How do heavy metals like lead get in baby food?

The problem begins at the farm where plants draw toxins from the soil. There’s no washing them away.

A copper mine could advance green energy but scar sacred land

Tribal groups are fighting an Arizona project whose backers say increasing the supply of copper, crucial to batteries, would reduce fossil-fuel use.
From our Newsroom
oil and gas wells pollution

What happens if the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the US goes bankrupt?

Diversified Energy’s liabilities exceed its assets, according to a new report, sparking concerns about whether taxpayers will wind up paying to plug its 70,000 wells.

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich: A journey through science and politics

In his new book, the famous scientist reflects on an unparalleled career on our fascinating, ever-changing planet.

oil and gas california environmental justice

Will California’s new oil and gas laws protect people from toxic pollution?

California will soon have the largest oil drilling setbacks in the U.S. Experts say other states can learn from this move.

popular stories 2022

Our 5 most popular reads from 2022

A corpse, woodworking dangers, plastic titans ... revisit the stories that stuck with our readers this past year.

Pittsburgh environmental

What I learned reporting on environmental health in Pittsburgh in 2022

For a lot of people, 2022 felt like the first “normal” year since 2020. It didn’t for me.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.