Obama’s Quiet Climate Legacy: A $5 Trillion College Divestment Campaign

Inspired by a president they propelled to office, college students have led a successful effort to pressure institutions to divest from fossil fuels.
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Photo by Peter Bowden / Flickr

Stamping my feet on the frozen ground of the National Mall on a bitter cold morning in January 2009, I didn’t think we had gathered to welcome a climate president. Foremost in my mind, at that time and in that place, were the seemingly endless war in Iraq, the reeling economy, and the uneasy footing of marriage equality. As with elections before and since, the climate was not a central focus.

Yet, as the years after his inauguration labored on, President Obama’s environmental identity gradually took shape. Anthropogenic climate change is the greatest threat to the planet and future generations, he said. And then his administration set about addressing the issue more deliberately than any previous commander in chief.

From establishing the first national carbon pollution standard for power plants to investing billions in low-carbon technologies and jobs, Obama recognized the need to curtail our fossil fuel appetite and take steps toward an alternative. He set meaningful standards for vehicle fuel economy, required that federal agencies consider climate risks for all new projects, established local-level adaptation task forces, provided funding and support for climate education, committed the country to the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement, and permanently protected over 550 million acres of public lands and waters. To name a few.

As he faced an obstructionist Congress, much of this work was pushed through by executive order. As a result, conservatives have both mocked Obama’s ineffectiveness and accused him of gross executive usurpation. They’ve painted him as impotent and autocratic. But at his best, Obama was something else altogether: inspiring.

“Young people are ready to fight Trump at every turn.”

“Young people are ready to fight Trump at every turn,” Erin Bridges, a campaign coach with the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, told me. A recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, she’s part of a generation of young Americans who swept Obama into office in 2008 and have no intention of rolling over on their ideals now that he’s on his way out. Though Bridges and her immediate peers were too young to vote eight years ago, it was young people like her who felt called to provide the brunt force for Obama’s presidential campaign. Now, lessons learned from that effort are being applied to progressive causes across the nation.

Proof of Obama’s lasting climate legacy may be the activation of legions of college students like Bridges, who have thrown themselves into the enormously successful effort to pressure institutions to divest from fossil fuels.

The movement, which began at Swarthmore College in 2011, has spread to hundreds of campuses nationwide. And although it got its start in dorms and study halls, the divestment movement has caught fire outside those circles. A report released in December showed its reach now extends to 76 countries and 688 institutions—including schools, governments, pension funds, faith-based organizations, and others. The total of divestment commitments now surpasses $5 trillion, with pledges doubling over the past 15 months.

Obama gave student divestment activists a shot in the arm early on. Speaking in South Africa in 2013, he recalled that his first act of political activism was to pressure Occidental College to divest from the apartheid regime. Just days earlier, while speaking at Georgetown University, he was clear: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest,” he told students. They listened.

To budge a behemoth as immoveable as the energy complex, students needed a leverage point within reach, and they found a good one in their own universities. As of June, U.S. colleges collectively held more than $500 billion in endowments. Ultimately, those institutions want to support their students, Bridges said, and loud direct action has proven an effective means of influencing administrations and the purse strings they control.

“Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest.”

Small, private New England liberal arts colleges like Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Unity College in Maine were quick to openly shed fossil fuel investment holdings. Student action in the form of public demonstrations and sit-ins urged Stanford to become the first major university to join the list in May 2014, when it divested $18 billion of stock in coal companies. (Despite mounting student pressure, however, Stanford has since refused to completely divest the rest of its oil and gas holdings.) Yale jumped on board in April, and a month later the University of Massachusetts became the first major public university to fully divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Surely Obama does not deserve sole credit for the success of the divestment movement, and it would be naive to overlook his climate policy shortcomings, including his tepid action on Standing Rock. But by acknowledging the grave reality of the situation we face and tapping into the potential of his young base, he has kept the ball rolling for a movement that may yet prove more powerful than any one policy decision.

Already, students across the country are flexing this muscle. To protest the incoming president’s climate denial and to maintain the divestment momentum, they are planning a massive walkout on Jan. 23. It will be the largest demonstration in the divestment movement’s history.

Faced with Trump and a Congress that has shamelessly ignored scientific research and its responsibility for the climate impacts on the lives of millions of at-risk populations, this young generation will show us the true worth of the outgoing president’s legacy.