Robert Kennedy Jr. on his crusade for a 'green' economy

The American radio host, lawyer and environmentalist was in Hamilton on Friday to give a speech on the promise of 'green' energy.

Says fight to promote use of 'clean' energy is 'a battle for the soul' of Canada and the U.S.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. makes comments during the opening minutes of a interview with journalist Charlie Rose in Dallas, Texas on Jan. 11, 2013. He was in Hamilton on Friday to deliver a speech at Liuna Station. (Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo)

Like many in his illustrious family, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no stranger to making a stand.

For decades, the lawyer, author and radio host has been an outspoken advocate for environmental conservation, and says ditching fossil fuels in favour of renewable sources of energy will yield a "green gold rush" for the United States and Canada.

He took his message to an audience at Liuna Station on Friday afternoon, giving a speech as part of a speakers series put on by Mohawk College and McKeil Marine.

Before the talk, Kennedy spoke with CBC Hamilton about promoting green energy, the revitalization of Hamilton, and how his famous clan inspired him to champion environmental causes. 

You've been touring the continent recently giving talks on how a shift to green energy could kick-start the economy. Why is this point such a hard sell in North America?

This is the case because virtually all of the engines of power are in the hands of incumbent oil and gas producers. And there's a battle going on for the future of Canada and the United States and that battle is really a battle for the soul of our countries and where we're going as nations. Are we going to move into the future by looking into the rearview mirror or are we going to embrace a future that exploits cheap, clean energy that we have in our countries?

Right now, we're operating under rules that were devised by the incumbents to favour the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most destructive, most addictive fuels from hell, rather than the cheap, clean, green, wholesome, safe, prosperous and patriotic fuels from heaven.

Hamilton is a former steel city whose industrial base has eroded over the years. How could a focus on green energy play a role in its resurgence?

This is happening in cities all over the country where people are taking control of their own destiny. And part of doing that is making yourself green and sustainable.

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It's a moral issue as well, which manifests itself in the morale of the city. Are we building the city on a sustainable model that's going to serve the public and serve future generations, or are we stealing from future generations in order to build prosperity for this generation of Canadians?

The resurrection, the restoration that you're seeing in Hamilton today ultimately, if it's going to continue, has to be based on a model of sustainability.

You're speaking today as a guest of Mohawk College. What role do you think educational institutions should play in making the changes you're pushing for?

Well, in the United States, the students are almost like in the 1960s. It's students who are leading the way. We're seeing this in almost 1,000 colleges in the United States. You have students who have launched these movements to get the endowments of their various colleges to divest from carbon-based fuels. And that's going to have an impact ultimately.

It's a good idea because the assets of most of the oil companies are based upon the storage capacity and on proven reserves. And if they burn those proven reserves, we know there is five times as much carbon in proven reserves of the existing oil companies today than you could burn without destroying the planet. At some point, we have to acknowledge that, either we are going to destroy the planet or the oil stocks are over-valued. And I think we're going to win on that battle.

The Canadian government has derided "foreign special interest groups" and "radicals" who are critical of the Alberta oil sands and the plan to funnel its products to the U.S. via the planned Keystone Pipeline. The heated rhetoric aside, if there's demand for our oil in your country, is it fair for the flow to be throttled?

If there were demands for slavery from Africa, would it not be fair for us as the United States to say, "We're not going allow slaves to be shipped to our country?"

'It would be immoral and irresponsible for peoplein either of our countries to take the position that we have to ignore what's happening in the other country because it's beyond our political frontiers.' —Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

First of all, I see a lot more Canadian officials coming down to the United States to try to get us to change our policies to allow a pipeline. And it's the dirtiest oil in the world.

We've had all kind of very, very bad spills in the country. The Kalamazoo River, we had a Tar Sands bitumen spill in the Kalamazoo [in Michigan]. As it turns out, bitumen acts different when you dump it into water. We clean up oil spills in the United States with floatable booms, but the bitumen doesn't float. It goes to the bottom and it coats the bottom, which is the foundation of the aquatic ecosystem. And it's U.S. citizens that are paying to clean it up, so asking whether we have a right to ask those questions, I would say, "Yes, we do."

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And do Canadians have a right to object when American coal-burning utilities poison and sterilize their lakes and destroy their forests with acid rain? I would say that they do. I would say that it would be immoral and irresponsible for people in either of our countries to take the position that we have to ignore what's happening in the other country because it's beyond our political frontiers. There's a bigger frontier and it's the frontier of all humanity.

Your father, Robert Kennedy Sr., was killed 45 years ago next month. How does his memory inform the work you're doing now?

I think my father, my grandfather and my grandmother tried to inculcate us with the notion that we should measure our success not by making a big pile for ourselves and whoever dies with the most stuff wins, but rather the impact that we have on making the world a better place and meeting our obligations as a nation. They taught us that we need to create communities for our children that provide them with the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment and good health as our parents gave us. I think all of my brothers and sisters and most of my cousins are involved in one way or another in that fight.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.