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RFK Jr. wants to poach climate voters from Biden, skeptics from Trump – Courting voters who see ‘totalitarian controls’ in Biden’s climate policy

RFK Jr. wants to poach climate voters from Biden, skeptics from Trump

By Scott Waldman


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sees an opportunity in the nation’s bitter divide over climate politics.

The independent presidential candidate is making a play for the climate-minded voters who compose much of President Joe Biden’s base, as well as the climate skeptics who make up former President Donald Trump’s constituency.

His strategy includes staking out positions well to Biden’s left — such as calling for a permanent ban on natural gas exports — even as Kennedy has shifted toward more conservative stances on controversies such as fracking. And he’s adorning these positions with the kind of anti-big government, anti-corporate rhetoric that flourished among populists of all stripes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an interview with POLITICO’s E&E News, Kennedy said he is trying to craft a climate policy that “makes sense to skeptics and activists alike.” It’s a platform that draws on his decades of experience as a leading environmentalist while also leaving room for conspiracy theories and those who reject climate science.

One issue where Kennedy has allied himself with many climate activists is in his call to end the United States’ role as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. He said he would ban the gas exports altogether — in contrast to Biden, whose administration announced in January that it was pausing approvals of new gas export terminals while it studies the exports’ climate and economic impacts.

Biden’s pause has angered Republican lawmakers and fossil fuel companies, thrown a scare into U.S. allies that depend on American gas supplies, and become a potential chit in Capitol Hill negotiations over military aid to Ukraine. Kennedy does not want an export ban for environmental reasons, but rather to protect U.S. gas reserves from being depleted.

Kennedy also wants to roll back the portion of the Inflation Reduction Act, the president’s signature climate bill, that funds carbon capture projects favored by the fossil fuel industry. He said Biden has been manipulated by oil companies.

“He’s played into the hands of the carbon industry by focusing on geoengineering and carbon capture, and that is to me a disastrous endpoint,” said Kennedy, a 70-year-old environmental lawyer who founded the worldwide Waterkeeper Alliance. “And it’s disastrous from an environmental point of view, and it also is just a subsidy for big carbon.”

At the same time, Kennedy has criticized the size of the president’s hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy subsidies. And he’s courting voters who see “totalitarian controls” in Biden’s climate policy — and explicitly drawing a connection to Covid.

“When you start clamping down controls on people, they rebel,” he said. And that clash is “going to make it much more difficult to have real environmental and behavioral change.”

“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,” he said. “And they see a mirror of that in climate.”

Kennedy did say he would make industry pay for environmental damage, or “internalize the cost” for running a power plant that produces air pollution, though he said he would support using the free market rather than government regulators to cut carbon emissions. He is light on details about how he would do that.

From climate champion to critic

In 2020, Kennedy published a book — “Climate in Crisis: Who’s Causing It, Who’s Fighting It, and How We Can Reverse It Before It’s Too Late” — that laid blame at the feet of Republicans in Congress.

Now, on the campaign trail, Kennedy rarely mentions climate change, and his message to Trump-friendly voters is that Biden is to blame for politicizing climate science and policy.

Biden has “made some really dire mistakes on climate policy,” he said in the interview.

One untapped well of voters, Kennedy added, is “hook and bullet” Republicans who want a clean environment for fishing and hunting. He said climate change discussions can alienate them.

“I believe that climate is existential, but I don’t insist other people believe that,” Kennedy said. “The issue is now so toxic and so radioactive that if you even talk about it, it shuts off people’s brains.”

In the interview, Kennedy did not present any policies that would meaningfully address rising greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming. He said his call for a ban on gas exports is not rooted in climate concerns, but rather a belief that U.S. natural gas reserves could be drained in a decade or two. That’s not true, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which estimates there are more than 80 years left of reserves.

“It’s cheap energy that puts us at a global competitive advantage, and we ought to be keeping that gas in our country and using it to rebuild our industrial base,” he said. “It does no good for the American people to ship it abroad to Europe.”

Kennedy said he won’t consider a fracking ban, even though he once encouraged former Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — his one-time brother-in-law — to do just that in New York. And though he said he is open to limited subsidies for renewable energy, Kennedy criticized Biden’s massive clean energy expansion as overly reliant on “subsidies and crony capitalism.”

On his campaign website, Kennedy said he wants the market, rather than subsidies, to shift the economy away from dirty energy sources toward cleaner energy. Kennedy was noncommittal about keeping the Biden administration rules meant to cut greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles and power plants.

He has talked about land preservation and regenerative agriculture, which rejuvenates organic matter in soil and sequesters carbon, as tools to address global warming, but has not laid out a plan to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Kennedy’s candidacy could Trump get reelected, said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, an advocacy and communications organization.

“RFK Jr. is being funded by Big Oil and Trump donors to put the worst environmental president in history back in office, and even his own campaign admits it,” she said in a statement. “Whatever RFK Jr. used to be, he’s now a science-denier who represents a singular threat to the planet, as a spoiler for Donald Trump and his dangerous Project 2025 agenda.”

Marc Morano, a conservative activist who runs a prominent climate denial blog, has been thrilled that Kennedy is now working with Covid and climate skeptics.

“You will find many 2024 voters may just easily pull the lever for RFK Jr. or Donald Trump,” he told E&E News last year.

Earlier this year, Kennedy hired Del Bigtree, an anti-vaccine activist who rejects climate science, as his communications director.

On his podcast, Bigtree recently called global warming a “phenomena that is being used to create hysteria” and said 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.”

Kennedy said that his communications director did not represent his positions.

“I don’t try to control how other people perceive the world,” Kennedy said. “He’s not speaking for my campaign when he says those things.”

That’s a departure from the Kennedy of 2014, who said then that politicians who deny the reality of climate change “are contemptible human beings and I wish there were a law you could punish them under.”

Asked about the statement, Kennedy said, “These days, I believe that free speech is the most important value that we have — and we need to keep it open.”