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Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chief counsel to Riverkeepers, a non-profit that’s given credit for cleaning up the heavily polluted Hudson River, gave intense support for green energy in a recent talk at UMD’s Marshall Performing Arts Center. He also called out “the incumbents” for failed energy and human rights policies.
Kennedy began by reminding us that both energy and water are “the commons, the commonwealth, assets of the entire community”. However, fracking for natural gas, mountain top removal of coal, and other ravaging mining practices are done in the name of short-term, corporate profits, and are leaving environmental devastation while usurping the public good. This environmental injury is true deficit spending.
“Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy”, he said, and listed Iceland, Sweden and Brazil as countries that have exchanged fossil fuel for the alternative energies of geothermal, solar, wind, and biomass, only to see their economies zoom. Decarbonization, in each case, led to increased GDP.
Kennedy acknowledges innovative technology as having tremendous potential, and revealed himself as a partner in Brightsource, the biggest green tech company in the US. Brightsource has a 3 billion dollar per gigawatt mirror farm in the Mojave desert where intense solar heat reflects from 100’s of mirrors onto huge turbines, causing them to turn.
A believer in a free market, but not in the failure of our present day financialized markets, Kennedy suggests that self interest can serve public interest. Public policy such as cap and trade, stalled for years in the US, but recently passed in England, could hugely impact fossil fuel use. An example of how quickly an economic system can be turned around? 200 years ago, the British parliament abolished slavery overnight.
Kennedy: “We borrow a billion dollars a day from folks who don’t agree with us on human rights (China and the Saudis) to burn a billion dollars of oil a day. Eliminate oil and we eliminate the bulk of the trade deficit.” Kennedy also decried our incumbent’s signing of laws that allow citizens to be imprisoned for no cause and without the right to trial [per the NDAA act], and of the use of drones to kill even citizens abroad.
“1.3 trillion dollars go to oil in subsidies each year; one-half trillion goes to the nuclear energy industry.” This doesn’t count the costs of the Gulf oil spill, of wars waged to make sure we get ‘our’ oil, nor of other huge intrinsic costs such as the expense to safeguard spent nuclear rods for the next 300,000 years.
Kennedy recently flew over West Virginia, viewing the horrific devastation caused by mountain top blasting for coal. “Coal has brought poverty. They’re cutting down mountains with 22-story machines so that now there are 14,000 miners employed in W. Virginia vs 150,000 in the 1960’s. They’re liquidating the state with 25,000 tons of dynamite used every day. 500 of the biggest mountains are gone; 2200 miles of rivers are filled with debris. This is all illegal.”
Costs of coal-fired plants? Ozone kills 20-60,000 people in the US per year and causes 300 billion in medical expenses. Acid rain has killed 1000’s of lakes, including 20% of those in the Adirondacks. Kennedy said he often canoes and fishes in those lakes with his children. Because he has always eaten his catch, he’s full of mercury and is trying chelation therapy to rid himself of it.
During a question and answer session, a man related similar dangerous mercury levels in babies in northern Minnesota. North Dakota coal burning and North Shore taconite mining were suggested sources. Kennedy gave lawsuits as the answer, and mentioned successful suits he had won in New York, Canada and South America. In one of the most encouraging moments of the night, he answered, “I will help”.
Likewise heartening: “We could power the entire grid [for the whole United States and with solar energy] by an area 75 miles by 75 miles”; “TX, ND and MT have enough wind to power the whole US.”
Kennedy sees that market drivers will push us to alt energy. He recognizes that regulations at all levels of government prevent tying solar and alt energy economically to the grid, but that in states like CA, rules have been rewritten to promote the common good. “We can transition very quickly; the Chinese are doing it already.”
One of my own sons is working on a community grid concept combining small urban windmills with solar collectors. Speaking to Kennedy personally, I asked about the importance of such ‘off the grid’ solutions. Emphasizing their importance, he added that California has converted to 30% renewables in 5 years. This should give us all hope.