Ted Kennedy’s Environmental Legacy

  • Published on August 27th, 2009

Americans of a certain age grew up with a very common stock political caricature as part of our culture: he (invariably a man) was a Southern Gentleman with a quick wit and syrupy drawl, never without his vested suit and pocket watch, and—at least in popular satire—always with one hand cradling a well-chomped cigar and the other out for a bribe. To some extent, he was epitomized by Boss Hog. But, that was then.


Today, one political caricature resonates in American pop culture like no other, and he is the Simpsons’ Mayor Quimby. Rarely if ever has an animated character drawn so many of traits, mannerisms and context from one living person so directly. Mayor Quimby is Senator Edward Kennedy, making the late Liberal Lion from Massachusetts the most well-known and widely-recognized political figure in generations.

Kennedy was not known for his environmental politics, but what will be his legacy vis-a-vis the environment and energy? Will he be remembered for what many viewed as self-interested and elitist opposition to the proposed Cape Wind project, an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, barley visible from the Kennedy’s Hyannisport compound?

The League of Conservation Voters scored Kennedy at 82% over his career – although they had him at a decidedly lower sub-40% score so far this session, they have already removed Kennedy’s page from their site so there is no telling if that low number could be attributed to missed votes rather than anti-LCV positions. Nonetheless, a quick survey of Kennedy’s votes on energy or environment issues shows that he was consistently with the progressive wing of the Democratic party when it came to clean air and water, EPA authority and management/mitigation of toxics and energy efficiency funding and improvements like CAFE standards and alternative fuel vehicles.

Kennedy’s opposition to Cape Wind later in life did draw the ire of some in the green movement and even some fans in his home state, including at the local liberal-leaning newspaper. But, Kennedy may be most fondly remembered by the green movement for a particular moment in his 1980 DNC speech assailing Ronald Reagan, in which he took the opportunity to take the then Republican nominee to task for his climate science shortcomings, saying: “The same Republicans who are talking about preserving the environment have nominated a man who last year made the preposterous statement, and I quote, ‘Eighty percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.’ And that nominee is no friend of the environment.”

If the early returns from the online environmental community are any indication, Kennedy’s progressive credentials earned him green cred that may even outstrip his actual accomplishment in the field. Thought leaders at places like Treehugger and Grist are singing his praises as an environmentalist, though it should be noted that they both cut and paste large swaths of their tributes from Kennedy’s own Senate page of accomplishments.

A Google search of the Senator’s name and the word “environment” brings up first-page hits that are incredulous about his opposition to the wind project, and a search pairing his name with the word “green” brings up mostly hits touting the rumor that Teddy had once been a Green Bay Packers prospect after his Harvard football career wound down.

In the end, I suspect that many Americans will be left with the mental image of the Senator as a sailor, so often was he photographed in nautical blue and white (with a touch of Red Sox red), sailing the waters off of Cape Cod. That image, his solid—if not aggressive—environmental voting record, and his unequaled progressive bona-fides will likely leave Senator Edward M. Kennedy with an environmental legacy that will only be burnished over the years – regardless of whether wind turbines ever tower over Horseshoe Shoal.

Campaign photo courtesy of Obama for America at TedKennedy.org

About the Author

An award-winning energy and environmental law scholar, Joe combines professional experience in utility sector government, community and regulatory affairs with a background in security clearance-required military intelligence and offers unique insight and complex analysis of energy infrastructure, technology and policy in national security, international trade and climate change and carbon-restrained economics contexts. Joe was awarded the Suffolk University Jurisprudence Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Environmental Law for his work analyzing the pathways and obstacles to adoption of renewable energy in state, federal and international energy policy. ”Home Rule on the Ropes,” his paper on renewable energy zoning in Massachusetts is on SSRN’s Top Ten lists for the Journal on Urban Economics & Public Policy and the Journal of Public Policy. And, he was awarded Suffolk Law's 2009-2010 McCormack Scholarhship in recognition of excellence in research and writing, including his paper - "Coming up ACES?" - on the NAFTA and WTO implications of the national renewable portfolio standard limitation proposed in the Waxman-Markey energy bill. A research assistant on Westlaw’s definitive energy regulation reference, ”The Law of Independent Power,” Joe is also a former state legislative aide and US Army linguist who tested at professional profiency in Russian and Spanish. His writing on law, politics and policy is also featured on the blog at www.RedGreenandBlue.org and he runs a series on land use and zoning for energy infrastructure - entitled "Powering Past NIMBY" - for Renewable Energy World Magazine. Joe lives in Boston with his wife and two young children. In his spare time, Joe is the founder and curator of the corporate social responsibility network on LinkedIn, and is an avid runner who recently posted a personal best in in the Walt Disney World Half-Marathon in Orlando.


  • True enough! Also, wanted to share that I did hear privately from a former Kennedy staffer after this piece posted and was tickled to find out that the Senator relished the Kennedy/Quimby connection, to the point of featuring a custom-drawn Groening cartoon of the two on a fictional presidential ticket.

  • It's really important that our view of Kennedy's record encompass the body of work and not be overly influenced by his vote on any one issue, e.g. the Cape wind farm. Making progress on the environment, like so many other important things, is a marathon-not a sprint. Kennedy has shown that he could go the distance and that is what counts–not the sprints, not the walks–but being there, over time. And he was.

  • So much of his "The Dream Shall Never Die Speech" is relevant now. It makes me sad that so many Americans do not know how much it Was Senator Edward Kennedy that made the dreams of his brothers a reality.

    I put together some of the audio of the speech, accompanied it with images and ideas that highlight some of his accomplishments, and put it into a video. The following page also has information on of the six Democratic senators in the Senate Finance Committee who are holding up the Kennedy Health Care act.


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