Obama’s Coded Climate Politics

Did President Obama blow the dog whistle for fossil-fuel-divestment activists?

National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
June 17, 2014, 10:02 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s cli­mate speech Sat­urday got plenty of press for its lengthy as­sault on glob­al-warm­ing deni­al. But what ex­cited an ag­gress­ive wing of the cli­mate move­ment were just a few cryptic words else­where in the com­mence­ment ad­dress at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Irvine):

“You need to in­vest in what helps, and di­vest from what harms.”

Act­iv­ists push­ing uni­versit­ies and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions to dump their fin­an­cial hold­ings in coal and oil-and-gas com­pan­ies be­lieve they heard an un­mis­tak­able White House en­dorse­ment. “People are thrilled about it,” Jam­ie Henn of 350.org, one of the groups lead­ing the di­vest­ment move­ment, said of Obama’s com­ments Sat­urday.

“Stu­dents will be tak­ing the pres­id­ent’s mes­sage to their col­lege pres­id­ents and boards of trust­ees,” he said of the fossil-fuel-di­vest­ment cam­paign, which also in­cludes the En­ergy Ac­tion Co­ali­tion, the Re­spons­ible En­dow­ments Co­ali­tion, the Si­erra Stu­dent Co­ali­tion, and groups on spe­cif­ic cam­puses. The founder of 350.org, Bill McK­ib­ben, a high-pro­file cli­mate act­iv­ist, has been a ma­jor di­vest­ment ad­voc­ate.

It’s Obama’s second ap­par­ent nod to the idea. Dur­ing a Geor­getown Uni­versity speech rolling out his second-term cli­mate plan last June, Obama was even briefer, say­ing “In­vest. Di­vest.”

The “in­vest” part of Obama’s speeches is un­re­mark­able. Obama’s cli­mate and en­ergy speeches are of­ten loaded with ad­vocacy of fed­er­al sup­port for green-en­ergy de­vel­op­ment.

If Obama’s en­dors­ing the fossil-fuel-di­vest­ment move­ment, however, it’s a note­worthy stance from a White House that has ap­plauded boom­ing U.S. oil-and-gas pro­duc­tion that’s un­der­taken by some of the very same com­pan­ies that act­iv­ists tar­get in their cam­paign.

En­dors­ing the cam­paign, which draws in­spir­a­tion from the 1970s and 1980s move­ment ur­ging di­vest­ment from apartheid South Africa, would also be a re­turn to Obama’s earli­est polit­ic­al roots.

In re­marks in South Africa last year when the now-de­ceased Nel­son Man­dela was gravely ill, Obama re­called that his first speech, in 1981, was as an Oc­ci­dent­al Col­lege stu­dent at a rally de­mand­ing the school’s di­vest­ment from the apartheid re­gime.

But were Obama’s brief “di­vest” com­ments Sat­urday really a dog whistle for the fossil-fuel-di­vest­ment crowd? The White House won’t say what, ex­actly, Obama meant on Sat­urday.

In an email ex­change Monday morn­ing, White House spokes­man Matt Lehrich de­clined to elab­or­ate on the com­ment. “I don’t have a pars­ing of the state­ment for you,” he said.

Obama’s latest com­ment drew at­tack from the right Monday af­ter­noon, when Stan­ley Kur­tz wrote on the con­ser­vat­ive Na­tion­al Re­view magazine’s web­site that Obama had “de­clared war” on the na­tion’s con­ven­tion­al en­ergy in­dustry.

Kur­tz urged the press to “force Obama in­to the open” by push­ing the White House to ex­pand on the re­marks, and he sim­il­arly called on Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans to press for cla­ri­fic­a­tion.

Act­iv­ists, however, already see a clear sig­nal of sup­port for their cam­paign, which gen­er­ally tar­gets in­vest­ment by pen­sion funds, uni­versit­ies, found­a­tions, and oth­ers in the 200 largest fossil-fuel com­pan­ies.

The di­vest­ment cam­paign in re­cent years has won vari­ous levels of di­vest­ment com­mit­ments — or at least re­com­mend­a­tions to in­vest­ment man­agers — from about two-dozen cit­ies, roughy a dozen high­er-edu­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, and oth­ers.

The highest-pro­file uni­versity has been Stan­ford, which in May said it would no longer in­vest in coal-min­ing com­pan­ies.

Henn said Obama’s re­marks will provide the move­ment with mo­mentum to pres­sure oth­er in­sti­tu­tions.

“I think stu­dents will see that as a clear sign that the [Obama] ad­min­is­tra­tion is on their side in terms of chal­len­ging their uni­versit­ies to take this step,” said Henn, one of the cofounders of 350.org.

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