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Robert Kennedy Jr. to make campaign debut at bitcoin conference

The environmentalist turned presidential candidate is positioning himself as a defender of cryptocurrency, despite its massive environmental footprint.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his run for president in Boston on  April 19, 2023.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced his run for president in Boston last month.Josh Reynolds / AP

WASHINGTON — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s first appearance as a presidential candidate will be at a cryptocurrency conference in Miami this month as the iconoclastic Democrat embraces a controversial industry that environmentalists say is a major contributor to climate change.

Kennedy, the vaccine-skeptic environmental lawyer whose uncle was President John Kennedy, has not held any public campaign events since he launched his Democratic primary bid against President Joe Biden last month in Boston, the homeland of his famous family.

Before stumping in an early primary state like New Hampshire, Kennedy will keynote the Bitcoin 2023 conference, billed as the “biggest bitcoin event in the world,” where tickets start at $899 and the all-access VIP “Whale” pass goes for $9,999.

“We asked him to speak after hearing his positive comments toward the bitcoin industry,” said Brandon Green, chief of staff to conference organizer BTC Media.

Kennedy will not be paid for his appearance, Green said. And his spokesperson, Stefanie Spear, said Kennedy would not accept speaking fees for any events during his 2024 presidential campaign. 

While many policymakers turned away from the crypto industry after a series of high-profile failures that wiped out small-time investors and led to federal fraud charges, Kennedy has positioned himself as one of the nation’s most prominent political champions of cryptocurrency.

Anthony Scaramucci, the crypto-friendly investor who briefly served as former President Donald Trump's communications director, said Kennedy’s promotion of cryptocurrency could endear him to its millions of devoted users.

“In my mind, there’s this shadow fandom or currently invisible lobbying group — and it’s probably currently about 77 million people — of bitcoin or other cryptocurrency holders in the United States,” said Scaramucci, who was quick to say he did not agree with all of Kennedy’s beliefs. “I think it’s going to be a topical issue in 2024, and I would imagine that one of these presidential nominees will embrace bitcoin. And if they do, that’ll give them an edge.”

While the bitcoin community has “a libertarian bent by nature" that may not align with most Democrats, Scaramucci said, “these are people who are typically agnostic to party."

The only other political leaders speaking at Bitcoin 2023 are Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy — who said he considered picking Kennedy as his running mate — Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and the governor of the Indonesian state of West Java.

In a series of tweets, Kennedy echoed libertarian views of cryptocurrency as a tool to fight repressive governments and hailed it as "a major innovation engine."

“Monetary freedom is as important as freedom of speech. Without it, we are slaves,” Kennedy wrote. “It’s not outlandish to imagine that even here in America, your bank account could one day be frozen because of your politics, or comments you’ve made on social media.”

As U.S. regulators look to impose new guardrails on cryptocurrency, Kennedy defended the industry from what he called an “extra-legal war on crypto” and suggested the “FDIC/SEC war on crypto caused failures of [Silicon Valley Bank], Signature and Silvergate banks.”

The stance puts Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who founded the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance, at odds with most other environmentalists, who say cryptocurrencies' enormous energy consumption is a major contributor to climate change.

A major study published last year found that crypto may contribute as much to climate change as the beef or crude oil industries, especially since miners seeking rock-bottom electricity rates often turn to dirtier sources of electricity.

Crypto “miners” use massive computer arrays that globally consume as much electricity as mid-size countries like Norway and produce as much e-waste as the Netherlands. American crypto operations consume about as much electricity as every home computer or all the residential lighting in the United States.

The industry has pledged to go green, and other cryptocurrencies have made major strides by switching to a different validation method that requires vastly less energy. Etherium, the world’s second-biggest cryptocurrency after bitcoin, saw energy consumption reduced by 99.9% after it switched.

But bitcoin remains both the biggest cryptocurrency and by far its biggest polluter, making Kennedy's decision to speak at what organizers say is a "bitcoin only" conference especially notable.

“This problem is really limited to bitcoin and maybe a couple of other smaller cryptocurrencies at this point,” said Elizabeth Moran of the environmental nonprofit Earth Justice, who works on crypto regulation. “Energy consumption is so great in some places that utility bills are skyrocketing for consumers, there’s increased fossil fuel consumption and increased water and air pollution."

Moran added that the "industry is doing a lot of greenwashing."

The White House this week proposed a 30% excise tax on electricity used in crypto mining, which it said would make miners “pay their fair share of the costs imposed on local communities and the environment.”

Kennedy opposes the tax as “a bad idea,” suggesting in his Twitter thread that bitcoin's environmental impact has been ginned up by nefarious actors.

“Yes, energy use is a concern (though somewhat overstated), but bitcoin mining uses about the same as video games and no one is calling for a ban on those. The environmental argument is a selective pretext to suppress anything that threatens elite power structures,” Kennedy wrote. “It is a mistake for the U.S. government to hobble the industry and drive innovation elsewhere. Biden’s proposed 30% tax on cryptocurrency mining is a bad idea.”

Asked to elaborate on his views, Spear Kennedy's spokesperson, said he believes the industry needs to switch to more renewable sources and take other steps to reduce its energy load.

“The energy usage is a real issue, but must not be used as a pretext to hobble the currency,” she said.