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Old Tactic in New Climate Campaign

By Justin Gillis (The New York Times) - July 9, 2013

It was a single word tucked into a presidential speech. It went by so fast that most Americans probably never heard it, much less took the time to wonder what it meant.

But to certain young ears, the word had the shock value of a rifle shot. The reference occurred late in President Obama’s climate speech at Georgetown University two weeks ago, in the middle of this peroration:

“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.”

That injunction to “divest” was, pretty clearly, a signal to the thousands of college students who have been manning the barricades for nearly a year now, urging their colleges to rid their endowments of stock in fossil-fuel companies as a way of forcing climate change higher on the national political agenda.

“The president of the United States knows we exist, and he likes what we’re doing,” Marissa Solomon of the University of Michigan wrote soon after. Other students recounted leaping to their feet or nearly falling off their chairs when the president uttered the word.

Chris Hayes, the host of a program on MSNBC who is young enough and smart enough to have caught the reference instantly, said on Twitter that “ ‘invest, divest’ is the most crypto-radical line the president has ever uttered.”

Maybe it should come as no great surprise, though. Divestment as a tactic for social change holds a fond place in Barack Obama’s memory.

Mr. Obama’s first foray into politics, as a student at Occidental College in the early 1980s, was in support of demands that the trustees divest from the stocks of companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.

In what he later called a piece of street theater, he was dragged off stage by two white students dressed up as oppressive Afrikaners. (He transferred to Columbia in 1981.)

The White House is not elaborating on what the president meant at Georgetown by “divest,” but the smoke signals seem to suggest that he sees direct parallels between the movement of the 1980s and the one today.

That is certainly how today’s student activists see it. Though careful not to overdraw moral comparisons between apartheid and climate change, they have embraced divestment as one of the few ways available to them to call attention to the gulf between the risks of global warming and the weak political response to it. They cite 1980s apartheid activism as a model.

So how is their movement going?

My sense is that the students themselves are surprised by how far and fast their divestment demand has spread. Since the idea was championed last year by the group 350.org and its leader, Bill McKibben, student groups have demanded divestment on more than 300 college campuses.

The idea is spreading to other countries, and it is spreading beyond campuses to city governments and religious institutions. Indeed, while only a half-dozen colleges have committed to divestment so far, nearly 20 mayors and city councils have made pledges of some sort.

Quite a few churches have done so, especially in New England, and last week the general synod of the United Church of Christ approved a divestment resolution. It was the first national religious denomination to go for the tactic, but probably not the last.

Neither Mr. McKibben nor his followers pretend that they are going to move the stock prices of Exxon Mobil or other fossil-fuel companies. Their real goal is to force the most important people in the country, many of whom sit on college boards, to grapple with the morality and practicality of unchecked fossil-fuel burning. In that sense, the students may stand to win even when the colleges say no.

So far, all indications are that big colleges will do just that. Not a single school with an endowment exceeding $1 billion has agreed to divest. They have generally argued it would be too difficult, or would hurt investment returns.

Moreover, active opposition has emerged on some campuses, with students taking public stands against divestment. Some complain that they have been shouted down. After Mr. Obama’s Georgetown speech, the Wisconsin Federation of College Republicans put out a statement criticizing him for “a nanny state climate-change policy” that will destroy jobs.

Intriguingly, though, the Wisconsin group said it was open to discussion of market-friendly solutions to climate change. Maybe the College Republicans, like a lot of other people, are growing impatient with climate deniers.

In Washington, of course, Mr. Obama faces intractable political opposition. His speech was all about executive actions he plans to take that do not require approval from Congress, but whether he can defend those from Congressional attack and from industry lawsuits remains to be seen.

Indeed, one way to read Mr. Obama’s speech is as a plea for help.

He knows that if he is to get serious climate policies on the books before his term ends in 2017, he needs a mass political movement pushing for stronger action. No broad movement has materialized in the United States; 350.org and its student activists are the closest thing so far, which may be why Mr. Obama gazes fondly in their direction.

“I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends,” he said plaintively at Georgetown. “What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.”