Robert Kennedy Jr. pivots right on climate change — but sharpens his threat to Biden

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spent decades as an environmental lawyer who sued polluters and founded a worldwide movement devoted to protecting waterways.

Now he’s running for president on a climate platform designed to appeal to supporters of both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — but one that also walks away from some of Kennedy’s own past stances on issues such as fracking.

The independent candidate is staking out some positions well to Biden’s left — such as calling for a permanent ban on natural gas exports. But he criticizes the size of Biden’s mammoth subsidies for green energy, has not committed to keeping the administration rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles and power plants, and hired a communications director who criticized “hysteria” around global warming.

He’s adorning these positions with the kind of anti-big-government, anti-corporate rhetoric and conspiracy theories that flourished among populists of all stripes during the Covid-19 pandemic — including many Trump supporters.

It’s an open question whether this approach poses a potential greater danger to Biden — or to Trump, who has begun attacking Kennedy as a supporter of the “Green New Scam.”

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.”

During the interview, Kennedy did not present any policies that would meaningfully address rising greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming. However, he has aligned himself with many climate activists in his call to end the United States’ role as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Kennedy 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 said he 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. 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.

While both major party nominees’ campaigns once professed to ignore Kennedy, that’s becoming harder to do.

He’s consistently polling at about 10 percent, and based on some surveys appears to be siphoning off more support from Biden by drawing the support of young voters and independents.

That has alarmed environmental organizations. A dozen green groups disavowed Kennedy on Friday, calling him a “science denier” whose candidacy stands to hand Trump the presidency.

“He may have once been an environmental attorney, but now RFK Jr. is peddling the term ‘climate change orthodoxy’ and making empty promises to clean up our environment with superficial proposals,” wrote the groups, which included the Sierra Club as well as the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement. “The truth is, by rejecting science, what he offers is no different than Donald Trump.”

An Issues and Insights poll released earlier this month showed Biden beating Trump 43 percent to 40 percent. But when third-party candidates were included, the two frontrunners were tied. Kennedy cut Biden’s support among independents by 6 percent while drawing 2 percent of the independent vote from Trump.

“Maximizing the reach” of progressive alternatives such as Kennedy is Trump’s “path to victory,” former Trump adviser and campaign manager Steve Bannon told The New York Times in a story this month, pointing to young climate activists’ unhappiness with the United States’ record-high oil production under Biden. “The more exposure these guys get, the better it is for us.”

In the interview with POLITICO, Kennedy rejected any assertion that he could tip the election to Trump and said he doesn’t worry that his own decades of environmental activism would be erased if the former president wins. Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” and he spent much of his presidency undermining U.S. efforts to address global warming.

“I don't think President Biden needs my help to lose to Donald Trump,” Kennedy said. “All the polls show him losing without me in the race.”

Alive to that danger, the Democratic National Committee, allied political action committees, Biden’s campaign and even Kennedy’s own relatives have been ramping up their attacks on Kennedy in recent weeks.

“RFK Jr. has changed his tune from being an environmental lawyer to peddling conspiracy theories about the science of climate change,” Democratic National Committee spokesperson Matt Corridoni said in a statement. “It's clear RFK Jr can't be trusted when it comes to climate action — he's more interested in parroting MAGA talking points.”

Meanwhile, Trump — who has attracted support from critics of vaccines and government regulations — insists to his followers that Kennedy is still a liberal.

Trump posted a video to Truth Social this month in which he attacked Kennedy’s environmental policies, encouraged Democrats to vote for him and said he is “Biden’s opponent, not mine.”

“We have the right and we have the center and we have even center-a-little-bit-left if you can believe it or not, because that group is radical left,” Trump said of Biden and Kennedy. “They want windmills, they want all sorts of things that are going to destroy our country.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But it has launched a website,, that brands him a “climate radical” who wants to ban fracking.

In fact, Kennedy alleged this month, the Trump campaign had asked him to be the former president’s running mate. He said it showed Trump viewed him as a formidable opponent because “Biden can’t win.”

“President Trump calls me an ultra-left radical,” Kennedy wrote on X, the social media platform formally called Twitter. “I’m soooo liberal that his emissaries asked me to be his VP. I respectfully declined the offer.”

The New York Post had previously reported in January that “people close to” Trump had “made preliminary overtures” to Kennedy about the veep slot.

Trump’s co-campaign manager, Chris LaCivita, denied Kennedy’s most recent claims, responding on X that “your a leftie loonie that would never be approached to be on the ticket..sorry!”

Kennedy entered the contest as a Democrat before deciding to run as an independent, but he recently has worked to shore up conservative support as well. Major Trump donors have also supported his candidacy, causing some Biden allies to allege that he’s trying to serve as a spoiler for the ex-president.

In addition to his public profile as a vaccine skeptic, Kennedy has suggested that some of those found guilty of attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were wrongly imprisoned. Kennedy has said that Covid-19 was an engineered bioweapon and “ethnically targeted” to spare Chinese people. Trump has similarly suggested that the Chinese government intentionally released Covid to harm the world.

And as POLITICO reported, an activist working with RFK Jr.’s campaign was caught on video saying Kennedy and Trump voters shared a “mutual enemy” in Biden.

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 Agency, 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 traps carbon, as tools to address global warming, but has not laid out a plan to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Kennedy and his running mate, Nicole Shanahan, will tout their vision for “healthy people and a healthy planet” during a virtual Earth Day event on Monday, according to his campaign, which described Kennedy as “one of the nation’s most influential environmentalists.”

Kennedy’s candidacy could help Trump get re-elected, said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, one of the green groups that attacked Kennedy in Friday’s letter.

“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.”

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.”