President Obama’s Divestment Drop-In

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech on energy and the environment at Georgetown University. Scheduled between major Supreme Court decisions, in the middle of a work day in the summer during a high-profile criminal case and an international manhunt for Edward Snowden, the speech unsurprisingly – and probably intentionally – got somewhat lost to the non-environmental media. It was truly a speech for supporters, designed to be overlooked by the public at large.

It was noticed by energy markets, though; stocks in coal companies plummeted significantly on news of more regulation for existing power plants and an end to international development aid for non-CCS coal plant construction. The Stowe Global Coal Index fell to its lowest level since the 2009 financial crisis in a sign that investors are beginning to see the writing on the wall. Fossil fuel companies are almost categorically overvalued and as economies begin to account for their full costs, their profits will fall.

It was also noticed by hard-core supporters. At the end of the speech, the President said two words that got environmental groups extremely excited:

“Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”’s divestment campaign was launched just this year; in a matter of months, a brand-new issue received a tacit endorsement in a major presidential address. That’s huge. It’s also not particularly surprising given the President’s roots. 

The divestment campaign models itself on an earlier campaign to convince colleges to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime. President Obama describes that same movement as his first foray into politics:

[Occidental College] was the place where the future president made his first political speech on Feb. 18, 1981 as part of a movement to persuade the Occidental Board of Trustees to divest the College of its investments in South Africa. “I found myself drawn into a larger role [in the divestment movement] … I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions,” Obama recalled. “When we started planning the rally for the trustees’ meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready.”

Obama’s speech was planned as a carefully rehearsed piece of street theater – two white students dressed in paramilitary uniforms dragged him off before he could finish to dramatize what often happened to South African activists. “They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn’t acting, I really wanted to stay up there … I had so much left to say.”

It’s an important reminder that the President, too, was once an undergrad on a quixotic mission to persuade a board of trustees that where their money comes from actually matters. Hopefully the mention will gain some more publicity and mainstream support for the divestment movement, which has started to feel a bit fatigued here at Middlebury College by the end of the semester. It’ll be interesting to see how things work out next fall as students return for a new year with a new strategy for promoting change. At least one President is on the side of divestment.



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