Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

2 minute read

Did President Obama Just Endorse Fossil Fuel Divestment?

In his long climate speech, the President uttered two words that might have gone unnoticed for most Americans, but served as a secret rallying cry for the growing movement that is trying to get colleges and businesses to stop investing in fossil fuels.

President Obama just gave a climate change speech that Al Gore called "terrific … historic … the best address on climate by any president ever." Gore seems to be excited about the policy particulars, but there’s one line that got activists excited. Actually, it’s not so much a line as two words: "Invest. Divest."

"Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. (Applause.) Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. (Applause.) Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth."

If you’re confused, the message probably wasn’t for you. It’s being read as a kind of dog-whistle audible only to the corps of activists who are pushing institutions—chiefly colleges—to "divest" from fossil fuels, just as activists pushed them to (eventually) divest from apartheid-era South Africa. Increasingly, the counterpart of that cry is to reinvest those funds in more environmentally friendly companies. "Divest, invest" is actually the logo of choice for the activists at the University of Michigan (though with a leaf instead of a comma separating the two words).

These activist groups are reading Obama’s message as an endorsement of their tactics. "President Obama's shout-out to the fossil fuel divestment movement is a huge endorsement for the students on over 300 campuses across the country who are running this campaign," said Jamie Henn, Communications Director for, one of the organizations leading the divestment campaign. "If the U.S. President supports divestment, surely university presidents should do the same. My Twitter feed absolutely lit up with students tweeting the news, people are pumped."

It’s a boost for what has been so far a very small David facing a very large Goliath.

"It was terrific to hear him say that. It’s tremendously powerful that the president has the back of the elected leaders of the 16 cities and 2 counties that have committed to divest, and a sure sign that the movement has struck a real chord," said James Irwin of the Mayors Innovation Project, which is working to get local governments to divest. "We hope this will lead to many more mayors committing to divest."