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.

algoma steel sault pollution
Algoma Steel, pictured in 2020. (Credit: Christopher Katsarov Luna/EHN)

Cleaner steelmaking can’t come fast enough for this Northern Ontario city

Algoma Steel continues to exceed Canada’s standard air pollution limits for cancer-causing compounds and struggles with spills as it pushes toward a “green” makeover.

SAULT SAINTE MARIE, Mich. — Peter McLarty technically stopped teaching science in 2000. But the retired high school teacher continues to educate — only now it’s about the dangers of a massive steel-making plant in his Northern Ontario community.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Vermont moves to protect pollinators by proposing pesticide restrictions

Vermont's legislation to limit neonicotinoid pesticides, known for harming bees, progressed through the House Committee with substantial support.

Abagael Giles reports for Vermont Public.

Keep reading...Show less

New York takes legal action against Brazilian meatpacker over misleading climate promises

New York's Attorney General Letitia James accuses JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, of false advertising about its climate initiatives.

David Gelles and Manuela Andreoni report for The New York Times.

Keep reading...Show less

Midwest experiences winter warmth disrupting life and economy

Unprecedented warm winter disrupts traditions and economies across the Midwest as ice vanishes from the Great Lakes.

Stephen Starr reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less

US 'climate-smart' agriculture funding often misses its target

A new report criticizes more than half of U.S. federal "climate-smart" agriculture funding for not effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Aliya Uteuova reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

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