Opinion | RFK Jr.'s surprising pivot on climate change should have Trump worried

Autor: Zeeshan Aleem

Before running for president as an independent candidate, Robert Kennedy Jr. spent a great deal of his career working as a leading environmental lawyer. He helped found and lead the Waterkeeper Alliance, a large nonprofit focused on protecting clean water. He founded and led an environmental law clinic at Pace University. He sued megacorporations like Mobil Oil and DuPont to force them to clean up the messes they made with their products. 

One might assume that Kennedy would eagerly leverage this record to woo Democrats and liberals who care about climate change. One would be wrong. 

Kennedy’s climate rhetoric underscores how he has evolved into a political figure more at home on the right than on the left.

While Kennedy does mention his experience as an environmental lawyer on his campaign website, he and his campaign have instead tacked far to the right of the Democrats on climate policy, including a blatant flip-flop on the issue of fracking. Kennedy has also couched his opposition to Biden’s climate policy in language that echoes his opposition to Biden’s record on Covid policy, assuming a posture that sounds hyper-libertarian and phobic toward the idea of the government managing any crisis. 

Kennedy’s climate rhetoric underscores how he has evolved into a political figure more at home on the right than on the left. Were it not for his surname, it’s difficult to see why Kennedy would appeal more to Democrats than Republicans at this point. If voters read him and his policies correctly — which there is no guarantee of — he should be more likely to take a bite out of Trump’s base than Biden’s on Election Day.  

An extensive Politico report outlines why a dozen prominent environmental groups recently issued a letter denouncing Kennedy. He has criticized Biden’s subsidies for clean energy, has refused to commit to maintaining Biden’s rules to cut pollution from power plants and vehicles, and says he favors allowing the free market sort out carbon emissions instead of government regulators. Kennedy also has changed his tune on fracking, a drilling method for extracting natural gas or oil from shale that has a huge impact on the environment. While at the beginning of his campaign he announced that he supported a ban on fracking, he soon softened his position to a “phase out” and told Politico that he now opposes a fracking ban.

The one position that appears to put Kennedy to the left of Biden on climate is support for banning natural gas exports. But Kennedy says that he holds this position not out of climate radicalism, but because he wants to protect the U.S.’s natural gas reserves. (The U.S. Energy Information Agency says there are more than 80 years of reserves left, per Politico.) 

Kennedy’s laissez faire positions put him at odds with a career premised on the knowledge that the private sector cannot be trusted as a steward of the environment or to put people before profits. It’s unclear whether changing personal views or politicking is driving his current positioning, but either way it’s a depressing development that seems to undermine the one issue where Kennedy could have had something valuable to say.

Kennedy said in his interview with Politico that his intention with his climate policy platform is to find something that “makes sense to skeptics and activists alike.” That’s a baffling policy vision. Accepting or denying the reality of climate change will nearly invariably lead to opposite policy approaches to energy and the environment. Moreover, while Kennedy might say he wants to create a climate policy platform for people across the political spectrum, the reality is that his positions on emissions place him well to Biden’s right.

Kennedy’s right-wing attitudes toward climate change are evident not just in wonky policy positions but in his conspiratorial rhetoric. Kennedy’s communications director — a prominent anti-vaxxer activist — said on a recent podcast that climate change is being used to generate “hysteria” and that, “when it comes to climate change, the reaction of the scientific community seems to be on steroids when it’s trying to micromanage us.” Though Kennedy disavowed those comments, his own language is not substantively different. For example, Kennedy told Politico that “Americans had enough of that during Covid, of people using the crisis — that many people believe now was manufactured — in order to clamp down totalitarian controls and shift wealth upward. And they see a mirror of that in climate.” Kennedy’s framing —  that addressing climate change is a Trojan horse for totalitarianism — is a hard-right talking point.  

The big question hanging over Kennedy’s candidacy, which is getting roughly 9% support in the polls, is whether he’s more likely to hurt Biden or Trump. Recent polls have mixed evidence as to that question. Sometimes it looks like Kennedy poses more of a threat to Biden. Other times, like with recent Marist and NBC polls, Kennedy appears more likely to siphon off Trump voters.   

Regardless, Republicans are growing more worried about the way that Kennedy could hurt Trump in 2024. Kennedy’s positions on climate, should they get wide circulation, should only make them more worried, as they place him even more definitively on the Trumpian side of things. Kennedy may not share all of Trump’s worldview, but they’ve got one major thing in common: exploiting and encouraging intense distrust in government. That, in turn, makes them natural competitors for an overlapping pool of voters. 

Zeeshan Aleem

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in, among other places, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Intercept. You can sign up for his free politics newsletter here.

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