Right from the start, the speaker event held earlier this month on Northwestern University’s Evanston Campus was no ordinary one. All attendees were asked to submit their handbags and briefcases for inspection upon entering the lobby of the Cahn Auditorium; further on in the lobby, two uniformed officers were present.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was a great “get,” in media parlance. The Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, the Association of Student Government and a number of other student/university groups pooled their resources to bring Mr. Kennedy here for the fall speaker event.
Mr. Kennedy, whose talk was called “The Green Gold Rush: A Vision of Energy Independence, Jobs and National Wealth,” is the chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance. He is also a clinical professor and supervising attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-host of “Ring of Fire” on Air America Radio.
In 1999, Time magazine called him one of the “Heroes for the Planet” and Rolling Stone named him one of its 100 Agents of Change.
Speaking in a raspy voice, soothed by sips of water (Mr. Kennedy has a vocal disorder, spasmodic dysphonia), Mr. Kennedy began, saying, “Nature is the infrastructure of our communities.” He pointed out that air, water and public lands are shared resources, and remarked that “environmental injury” should be regarded as “deficit spending.”
Recalling the eight years of the Bush administration, Mr. Kennedy said that partisanship is a bad thing for democracy. Citing that administration’s poor environmental track record, he stated that “good environmental policy is equal to good economic policy.” He said that special interest groups – big oil and big coal in particular – had funded propaganda refuting the existence of global warming.
In 1987, under then-President Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the Fairness Doctrine, and in 1988 Mr. Reagan vetoed a bill passed by Congress to reinstate it. Mr. Kennedy asserted that those actions led to the demonization of the media. Today, the five media giants (AOL Time Warner, Fox News Corp, Sony, Viacom and Walt Disney) own 80 percent of the newspapers, 2,200 of the television stations and 14,000 of the radio stations in the United States.
Mr. Kennedy reported that most of the mercury pollution in our rivers and streams comes from coal-burning power plants, and added that “ozone particulates from these coal plants kill some 20,000 people per year.” He stated that the coal companies in West Virginia are owned by Wall Street interests. Mr. Kennedy further condemned big coal, claiming that “efforts to develop high-speed rail in the U.S. have been hampered by coal gondolas that have bent the rails.”
Mr. Kennedy says he views alternative forms of energy, such as solar and wind, as the way to turn things around in this country – both environmentally and economically. He said that “a grid system does not exist to deliver alternative energies to every U.S. home” and added that “there is no state where a homeowner can get market rates for … extra power from solar panels.”
According to the Brenner Information Group, Nevada homeowners can get credit on their bills for feeding kilowatt hours of excess electricity back into the regional electrical grid. The same is true in California, but many states do not have policies that enable homeowners to be paid more than a credit at the end of each solar year. Nevertheless, a movement is growing in some states to pay homeowners for excess solar energy added to the utility grid. This does not apply to all states, where some state legislatures are listening to special interest groups and still resisting this move.
Mr. Kennedy called North Dakota “the windiest place on Earth” and a great location for wind farms. He noted its potential to generate energy to power every U.S. home. By capturing wind energy by night (when winds are the strongest) and solar energy by day, Mr. Kennedy asserted, “the U.S. could meet its energy needs for free.” He drew the comparison of the cost of using the Internet to that of energy with a national grid, which would be nominal.
He declared that “China views green technology as an arms race. They want to take the lead role from the U.S.” A recent report in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal stated, “Chinese wind turbine manufacturer A-Power Energy Generation Systems Ltd. will begin shipping 2.5-megawatt turbines in March 2010. The turbines will be built in the company’s plant in the city of Shenyang.”
On a positive note, Mr. Kennedy reported that the first steps toward a public grid will be taken with the construction of the first substation in Clovis, N.M. According to a Reuters story, the Tres Amigas SuperStation will act as a power market hub, enabling the buying and selling of electricity between the three U.S. energy grids, the Eastern, Western and Texas.
After speaking before about 600 people for nearly 90 minutes, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. took a few questions from the audience. To one he stated “that campaign finance reform is very important to having legislators who will work for the environment.” He added that political campaigns need to be funded publicly.
Mr. Kennedy encouraged people to get involved in politics, especially at the local level. He told students that “at age 18 you are not too young to run for public office,” and again cited local government opportunities such as library boards and park districts. “Civic participation is key to re-establishing a true democracy,” he said.