ANDY SERWER: Robert Kennedy, Jr., son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, has spent his life fighting for causes he holds dear, including controversial ones. For over three decades, Kennedy, Jr. served as an attorney for top environmental groups, going toe-to-toe in lawsuits against corporate giants. More recently, he's questioned the safety of vaccines, eliciting rebukes from a consensus of mainstream scientists, and even from family members.
He's here to talk about the 2020 presidential race, the future of the planet, argue with me about vaccines, and speak to the legacy of his family in the age of Trump.
Hello, everyone. I'm Andy Serwer, and welcome to "Influencers," and welcome to our guest, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., environmental lawyer and anti-vaccine advocate. Robert, welcome.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Good to see you, Andy.
ANDY SERWER: So let me ask you first of all about the wildfires in Australia, because it's a huge environmental crisis down there, and you're an environmentalist. How do you think that that is being handled down there, and what do you think that reflects in terms of how we're handling environmental crises around the world?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I think, you know, it's a predictable byproduct of climate change. And you know, I live, as you know, I live on the west coast now, and that house is-- the house I lived on the west coast has been evacuated. We've had to evacuate twice in two years. Very unusual. Because it wasn't an area that was part of the traditional fire zone.
The fire seasons in California now are two months longer than they historically have been. And the same week that we were evacuated on the west coast, our home-- we have a summer home on Cape Cod, which was-- and that town was struck by a second storm in two years that destroyed a pier that had, prior to the first storm, been there for 100 years.
So, you know, all of the modeling for climate change indicates that we're going to-- if [INAUDIBLE], storms on steroids, droughts, you know, famine, the disappearance of the ice caps, the disappearance of the glaciers on every continent, and that, it's going to be, you know, there's going to be major disruptions, not just to humanity, but ultimately, to civilization. And that's part of the cost that we're paying for our longtime deadly addiction to coal and oil.
ANDY SERWER: Right.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: If we had a true free market economy, those industries would be paying the cost of global warming to all of us. They wouldn't be able to externalize those costs.
ANDY SERWER: So how would you mitigate that then?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I mean, there's two questions. How do you fortify the planet for the upcoming cataclysm for rising seas and disappearing water? And the other is, what can we do to mitigate future impacts? And to me, you know, the answer to the first one is clear-- we actually impose market discipline on the energy markets, and we take away subsidies to coal and oil.
According to IMF, those two industries get about $5.2 trillion in subsidies annually, and they couldn't compete in a market, in a market-- in fact, last year, 63% of the new generation that was constructed worldwide was renewables. And it wasn't constructed because the government awarded it. It was constructed because the markets are dictating it as by far the cheapest form of energy. Solar today, you know, according to Bloomberg, energy is about 17 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas, you know, a nuke is 10 times that.
ANDY SERWER: Right.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: And coal is five times that. Or coal is about seven or eight times that. Gas is triple that. So if we really had, if people really believed in free market capitalism, every subsidy, every-- pollution is a subsidy.
ANDY SERWER: Right. Right. Right.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: And if we really believed in free market capitalism, we can solve this problem overnight.
ANDY SERWER: What democratic candidate has the best environmental platform? Which one do you support then?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, you know, I would say all of them have a better environmental platform than the current president. And I think all of them would do well on the environment. And so I think most Democrats are just looking for a candidate who is able to beat Donald Trump, which is a very formidable task.
ANDY SERWER: Yeah, well, is there one that you favor in particular?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I don't-- I haven't made any endorsement. So I'm just kind of looking. I'm watching the debates. I'm watching what's happening in the primaries.
My kids are working for Mayor Pete. My cousin Joe is working for Elizabeth Warren. There are a number of other members of my family who are working for Joe Biden. We have relationships with, very strong relationships with most of the candidates. And I kind of go back and forth. I hear them debate. I love Tulsi Gabbard when she talks about our foreign policy. I think, you know, I'm most closely aligned with her with her vision for foreign policy than any of the other ones. They're all pretty good on the environment.
ANDY SERWER: Right. So you have your take a little bit, but you go back and forth. The Kennedy family is spread around at this point. Interesting.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: And I haven't made an endorsement.
ANDY SERWER: What about AOC's New Green Deal? What do you think about that?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: You know, I--
ANDY SERWER: The Green New Deal, excuse me.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I think the Green Deal is, and all of that stuff, is important. It's good. We ought to be pursuing it. My approach is more market-based than kind of top down dictates. You know, I believe that we should use market mechanisms, like, like carbon taxes, and, you know, and the elimination of subsidies. I think that those are the things that would transition our economy, fast as from a coal-based economy. That is kind of what the role--
Right now, you know, we ought to have a market-based economy that does what a market is supposed to do, which is to reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency in ways. Right now, we have a market that is governed by rules that were written by the carbon incumbents to reward the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most toxic, most war-mongering fields from hell, rather than the cheap, clean, green, wholesome, and patriotic fields from heaven. And you know, we need to rationalize our marketplace so that it does the things that market is supposed to do, which is to create a society that we're all proud of and that will sustain our children.
ANDY SERWER: You mentioned your family a little bit. And you also mentioned President Trump. Now, the president has many family members working with him in the White House. As a member of a famous American clan, do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I don't think it's a good or a bad thing. I don't think that's the problem with the President.
ANDY SERWER: What is the problem with the President?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I think the problem is, number one, he's a bully. And you know, I don't like bullies. And I don't think America, you know, that's part of America tradition. I think in many ways, he's discredited the American experiment with self-governance.
You know, I worked in China for many years and all over the world. Even 10 years ago, if you talked to the top leaders in China, what they say is, you know, we are working towards, more toward the American model of democracy because we know that's kind of where we want to go. We've got a lot of problems, we've got billions of people, we have a lot of poverty, and we need to do things slowly and incrementally, and we can't do it precipitously. But that's where we're headed.
If you go to China today and ask them, do you want a democracy like America has, and you ask anybody in the world this, they will say no. Because why would we want a form of government that can produce leadership of, you know, a person who doesn't read books, who's not thoughtful about issues, who's bullying, who uses all the, who employs all the, you know, the dark alchemys of demagoguery, and is, you know, is destroying so much about the things about America that we admire and that make us an influence, that make us an exemplary nation?
After President Kennedy, I mean, one of the-- my kind of models is influenced a lot by what I've seen around the world over the last 50 years. And what I saw after my uncle President Kennedy's death, if you go to any capital in the world, you'll see there's a boulevard named after John Kennedy. There are hospitals, there are schools, there are universities. The biggest statue in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia is one of my uncle.
And you know, that love for America, that was, that is demonstrated by those things. And there's people named John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. I've run into thousands and thousands of them across the world. The love for our country that that represents was an asset for America. It was a financial asset. It was a security asset. You will not find anybody, any boulevard in any nation in the world named Donald Trump.
ANDY SERWER: Except one that maybe he--
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, yeah, you'll find hotels with his name on it and stuff that he's put his name on. But you won't see situations where a government or people or a community has said, this is something we admire. And you know, I think that's, you know, that's a measure of success for a president. That's one of the measures that we ought to be looking at, because it's such an important and a critical asset for America, in terms, particularly, of our national security. If you have people who admire our country all over the world, we're much less likely to get into a war or conflicts.
ANDY SERWER: And your cousin's wife, Amy Kennedy, is going to be running for Congress in the seat vacated by Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey. What do you think about that?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I applaud her. I think it's good that the in-laws now start getting involved in the Kennedy family business.
ANDY SERWER: That's funny. And what about President Trump's record on the environment?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, it's a cataclysm. You know, I don't think President Trump came out of, you know, is an anomaly. I think he is simply the radical acceleration of a process that's been happening in our country and in the Republican Party for the past, really since 1980, which is a growing hostility toward the environment, a growing orientation to representing the, you know, the concentrated corporate power, and power of, particularly of the oil industry and the chemical industry, and some of the other large polluting industries. And as a result of that, under George Bush and under President Trump, George W. Bush, we saw, really, an open assault on all of our environmental laws.
ANDY SERWER: What are you trying to do as president of Waterkeeper Alliance?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: We have litigation against [INAUDIBLE] we probably have a dozen lawsuits now. And you know, we're doing what we do. We now rep-- we're now the biggest water protection group in the world. We're in 44 countries, we have 350 patrol boats patrolling local waterways and rivers and bays in 44 countries. We patrol those waterways, we track down polluters, and then we stop them. We use litigation a lot. We use all the tool, what Martin Luther King said were the tools of advocacy, which is agitation, legislation, litigation, and education. And I would add innovation.
ANDY SERWER: And that came out of Riverkeepers, which was an organization--
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: The first Waterkeeper was this kind of blue collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen that mobilized on the Hudson in 1966 to reclaim the river from its polluters. And they began suing polluters on the Hudson, and hired me as their attorney in 1984. We brought hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits.
Today, the Hudson is an international model for ecosystem protection. It's the richest waterway in the North Atlantic. It produces more pounds of fish per acre, more biomass per gallon than any other waterway in the Atlantic north of the equator. The miraculous resurrection of the Hudson has inspired the creation now of Riverkeepers all over the world. And we're not only the largest water protection group, but we're the fastest growing.
ANDY SERWER: So we've talked about how environment is under siege here in the United States because of legislation, or rollbacks maybe by the Trump administration now, and the Bush administration prior to that. Where do things stand internationally, Robert? Are things getting better or worse outside of the US?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, the thing, I mean, the environment is under assault everywhere.
ANDY SERWER: Right.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: You know, because of, principally because of fossil fuels, which are not only causing climate change, but also [INAUDIBLE] the ocean and poisoning us all with mercury and with acid rain, which destroys forests, and ozone and particulates, which cause around 700,000 deaths annually globally, around 20,000 in the United States [? globally. ?] So all of those-- you know, the environment is under assault.
You know, the things that we can be hopeful for is one, there is much more knowledge about the problem. And there's a lot of activism taking place now around the world. And then I think the big hope for the future is technology, is that we do have the technologies today to solve most of our most dire environmental problems, with the exception of population. You know, we have wind and solar has now plummeted.
India has canceled $14 billion worth of coal plants, and that's more than the entire coal fleet of Great Britain, because the cost of solar has dropped precipitously. So there's hope that we can plant, that we can power the globe on renewable energy. And the question is, you know, it's a race, really, a race to the bottom. You know, how many species are we going to be left with?
ANDY SERWER: Right.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: How dire is the situation? How many people are going to be displaced by drought and famine before we actually cross that threshold and stop producing fossil fuels?
ANDY SERWER: Are there any companies that, to your mind, have figured it out, have got it in terms of helping the environment rather than hurting it?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, yeah, there are many, many companies out there that have that commitment. You know, unfortunately, it's not just about kind of being an example. We actually need rules that, you know, that reward good behavior, that say to you, we're not going to encourage you to make money by hurting people, and by making, by degrading our country, and getting us into wars, or polluting the planet, or whatever, we're actually going to say, we want you to make money; we want to do well by doing good.
And it's easy to design market rules that do that. The market is the most powerful economic engine that's ever been devised by humanity. But it has to be harnessed with a social purpose, otherwise it just will lead us on the inevitable road of political oligarchy and corporate kleptocracy and environmental apocalypse.
ANDY SERWER: Let me switch and ask you about vaccines. I'm curious, how did you come to the position that vaccines were a problem?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: First of all, you started out by introducing me as anti-vaccine, which I'm not. People say I'm anti-vaccine because they don't want to have the argument with me about how to improve vaccines. And I'm not anti-vaccine. I'm-- I believe we should have safe vaccines, and I believe we should have robust science, and I believe that we should have independent regulators who are not financially tied to the companies that make our vaccines.
So the problem with-- there is a couple of problems with vaccines. I had three vaccines as a kid. Today's kids get 72. And the reason they get so many is because they're so profitable. And they were made profitable in 1986 when Congress passed a law that said you can't sue a vaccine company. So no matter how toxic the ingredient, no matter how negligent the company, no matter how grievous your injury, you can't sue them, which means that company has no incentive to make them safer. And remember, the four companies that make all 72 of the vaccines that are now mandated for our kids are all serial felons.
ANDY SERWER: Well, how did you, wait, so how did you pick this issue though, that's my question, of all the other issues out there?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: The reason I picked the issue-- it kind of picked me-- is that I, first of all, I was suing a bunch of coal burning power plants and cement kilns in 2004 for discharging mercury, poisoning all the fish in America. And people started coming up to me at that time, mainly women with children who had intellectual disabilities who were vaccine-injured. And they'd come up to me and say, if you're really concerned about mercury exposures to children, you need to look at vaccines. And I didn't want to do it. You know, my family's been involved in the issues of intellectual disabilities for generations.
ANDY SERWER: Yeah.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: It's something I grew up with, I care deeply about, but I wanted to spend my time protecting water. One of these women came to me on Cape Cod at the end of 2004. She had a big pile of scientific studies, and she put them on my front stoop. And she was a psychologist from Minnesota. Her name was Dr. Sarah Bridges. Her son had been a perfectly healthy boy [? got ?] autism from a vaccine, the vaccine court had acknowledged that that was true and given them a $20 million settlement.
And she put this pile on my front step and she said, I'm not leaving here until you read those. And I'm very accustomed to reading science. It's part of my job. I've brought hundreds of lawsuits, they all involve scientific controversy. I started reading that science and I was immediately struck by the huge delta between what the actual science was saying and what the public health agencies were claiming.
ANDY SERWER: But there is, Robert, a huge body of science that doesn't support your position.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Show it to me.
ANDY SERWER: OK. Well--
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Show it to me.
ANDY SERWER: I can, but I'm not going to do that right here.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Show me one study.
ANDY SERWER: I'll show you a lot of studies, but right now--
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: --says that vaccinated children are healthier than unvaccinated children, then I will put that study on my website and I will quit my job.
ANDY SERWER: OK, we will send it to you, probably. And I'm just-- I have no dog in this hunt. I'm just telling you that there is a big body of science, and several family members of yours called you out on this. So what would you say to them? Not to me, what would you say to them?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I've already said to them what I've going to say to them, which I've written and is published on our website. What I say is people say there's this huge body of science. What the science consists of is a handful, a tiny handful of epidemiological studies that were written by industry and by the CDC, which is part of the industry. And none of those studies do-- all of them are fatally flawed, and I can go through each one with you. And none of those studies do what you would want a study, that you wanted to exculpate vaccines, actually do, which is to compare a vaccinated population to an unvaccinated population and look at the health outcomes.
The Institute of Medicine, which is the National Academy of Science, which is the ultimate arbiter of vaccine safety science, has repeatedly said to the CDC, you are claiming that you have studied this issue, particularly the issue between autism and vaccines; you have not. Oh, it's not Robert Kennedy. It's the Institute of Medicine, which is the highest authority, scientific authority in our government, has repeatedly said to the CDC, you have not done the studies necessary to make these claims that you are making.
ANDY SERWER: In 2017, you met with President Trump and you said he was going to appoint you head of a commission about vaccines. That didn't happen. Why is that?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: My assumption is-- and my assumption is based on empirical observation as I can't look into President Trump's head-- that the industry, at that point, got to him. And you know, Pfizer, immediately after that meeting with me, Pfizer made a million contribution to President Trump's inauguration. He then took people who where vaccine lobbyists, appointed them to the highest positions at CDC and HHS, and we were cut off.
ANDY SERWER: You have supported an organization that put a lot of ads on Facebook supporting your position, and now Facebook has banned those ads. Do you think that Facebook is censoring you?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Of course they are. All of the big tech is censoring any information about vaccines. That's why you can come up here and say I'm anti-vaccine, because I cannot-- there's no forum--
ANDY SERWER: Well, you're partly anti-vaccine.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: No, I'm not. I'm against vaccine-- I'm for vaccines, but I'm for safe vaccines.
ANDY SERWER: What's a safe vaccine?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: A safe vaccine is a vaccine that has been tested against a placebo or against, or against a unvaccinated group, and that where that vaccine, where we can see from science, that vaccine is averting more harm than it's causing. And that's all we want. And if you show me that study, Andy, I will quit my job at the CHD, I will post that study on our website, and I will leave.
Right now, not one of the 72 vaccines that is now mandated for our children has ever been safety tested.
ANDY SERWER: But how is that possible? Do you really believe, Robert, that out of all the 72 vaccines that you say are out there, that they're all unsafe? Is that really-- it doesn't seem logical.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I don't think anybody can say that they're safe because they've never been, they've never been safety tested. And the reason they're not safety tested and the reason they have an exemption-- every other medicine is tested against a placebo, usually for five years in double blind tests, which means you give a blue pill to 10,000 people, an identical blue pill to 10,000 similarly situated people, and then you look at health outcomes.
Every other medicine, every other medical device has to go through that test. The only one that is permanently exempt from that is vaccines. And the reason that, it's an artifact of the CDC's legacy is the Public Health Service, which was a quasi-military agency, which is why people at CDC have military ranks. The vaccine program which was initially implemented as a national security defense against biological attacks on our country.
So they-- people who were running it wanted to be able to get a vaccine to market very quickly to deploy it to 100 million Americans without regulatory impediments. So they said, we're not going to call it medicine, because then we'd have to test it. We're going to call it biologics, and we're exempted from testing. And that's why no vaccine has ever been safety tested.
ANDY SERWER: Well, you have to admit that your position is controversial, and you have this strong reputation as an environmentalist. And a lot of people criticize you about these positions. Do you-- are you concerned about your reputation?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Of course, I'd rather have everybody love me. But I-- you know, listen, I'm seeing something where we're seeing millions of children badly injured. We have-- listen. Here's what HHS says. If you were born prior to 1989, which is the year the vaccine schedule [? imploded, ?] you have a 12% chance of having a chronic disease. If you are born after 1989, you have a 54% chance.
Nobody's explaining why do all our kids have diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis. Why did autism drop from 1 in 10,000 in your or my generation to 1 in 34 in the vaccine generation? Why did food outages suddenly appear in 1989? They're all coming from vaccines.
And either way, it's not just me saying it. All those 400 diseases that suddenly became epidemic after 1989, every one of them is listed as a side effect by the manufacturers--
ANDY SERWER: Well, some people would say the measles epidemic we've seen over the past few years is because they're not people getting vaccines. So--
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Then answer me this. Why is it that CDC says that 39% of the people who got sick at Disneyland had vaccine-strain measles?
ANDY SERWER: I don't know the answer to that. I don't have--
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: What it shows is that the problem is not that people are not getting vaccinated, it's that the vaccine is not effective as people say it is.
ANDY SERWER: People may disagree with that. Why don't we switch to something less controversial?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: They would have to explain that.
ANDY SERWER: Well, I'll go less controversial. Let's go to politics, which is usually more controversial than any other subject, but here it's probably less controversial. I want to ask you about Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax, because you come from a wealthy family, but you're also liberal, from a liberal family. Do you support Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: You know, I don't know the details of her wealth tax, but I definitely think that the gap between rich and poor in this country is much too large, that we've destroyed the middle class, and that the very wealthy people ought to be paying more in taxes. And corporations. I mean, why is it that Amazon didn't pay a dollar in taxes? [INAUDIBLE]. People, everybody should pay their fair share.
ANDY SERWER: What about what Bernie Sanders says in terms of billionaires shouldn't exist?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I don't think we should [? ban ?] billionaires. I think that's not the way to go about it. You know, we had a 50-year part of our history, which is called the Great Prosperity, when we developed the American middle class, which was the driver of the world economy, it was the driver of our economy. It created happiness and quality of life in our country. And during most of that period, there was a 91% tax on the upper echelon.
When my uncle became president, it was a 90% tax on the wealthy in this country. Is too much? Yeah, that's probably too much. We need to incentivize people to work hard, smart people to make money. But at the same time, we need to make sure that we keep the middle class intact, and that-- you know, we don't want the kind of country, the kind of distribution in wealth that they have in Latin America and elsewhere because it causes instability, it causes unhappiness, it causes a lot of fallout, a societal fallout that is not good for anybody.
ANDY SERWER: I mentioned Bernie Sanders. I guess I have to ask you, do you and your wife, Cheryl Hines, like Larry David's impressions of Bernie Sanders? Have you seen that?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Yeah. Well, we like-- Larry is very good. And I don't know if you know that, but it turned out, they both did 23andMe and they found out that they were actually distantly related.
ANDY SERWER: Which two?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Larry and Bernie.
ANDY SERWER: Is that right?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Yeah.
ANDY SERWER: It's not surprising. That's very funny. And finally, last question, Robert. You've had to overcome all kinds of tragedies and personal demons in your life. How have you learned to manage those, and grow, and become a leader in your field?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I mean, that's a big question. You know, I, listen, I try to live my life like everybody. You know, I went through an evolution, a spiritual evolution, that was spiritual, mental, emotional, and many other things.
I mean, for me, I struggled with addiction from when I was about 15 years old to when I was 29. And I think in many ways my struggle to overcome that taught me a lot of lessons about how to live my life in a way that was less directed towards making myself immediately happy, and understanding that any kind of, anything that I do that is consequential, that is durable is going to come from trying to be of service to other people.
And that any time that I become the focus of my efforts, that it just, you know-- which that's a, a lot of life is about learning how to handle power, because, you know, we all get to reduce, we all hit a bottom somewhere where our lives are empty and nothing good is happening. And you pray to God, and you try to get some direction, and then maybe go forward, and your life starts to get bigger again, and things flow into it, and then your inclination is to say-- at least mine-- you know, is thank you, God, I got it from here, and then I drive a car off the cliff again.
And a lot of life is really, you can't live off the laurels of a spiritual awakening. You have to renew your spiritual reservoirs every day. And what I've found is the most reliable way of doing that is to try to look for what is to be of service to other people.
ANDY SERWER: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., thank you very much for your time.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Thank you for having me, Andy. And thanks for your courage in covering that issue because nobody else will do it.
ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.