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April 7, 2017

Martin O’Malley’s Words Ring Hollow at BC Divestment Rally

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley delivered the keynote address at Tuesday’s Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC) divestment rally. The former governor-turned presidential candidate-turned Boston College (BC) law professor advocated broadly for fossil fuel divestment, but oddly enough did not directly call out BC on the issue, even though the school has refused to divest. Instead, O’Malley briefly addressed the topic in confusing and contradictory terms at the end of his remarks, endorsing divestment, while acknowledging his own hypocritical track record on the issue:

I cannot tell you that as a mayor…that we’d push for the divestment of fossil fuels. But I’ll tell you what, city after city is going to be pushed and it’s going to be pushing now against this dark canvas in the Trump administration for the light that comes from divesting from fossil fuels. As governor, I was not one of those governors…that was pushing [for divestment of pension funds] but I’ll tell you what, there will be governors after me that will.” (emphasis added)

During Tuesday’s keynote, O’Malley flip-flopped saying that during his time as mayor of Baltimore and then governor of Maryland divestment was never on his agenda, but now (conveniently that he’s not in office) he thinks it should be a priority for others.  But let’s not forget that not too long ago O’Malley actually viewed fossil fuels from a practical perspective.

Following a long review of the process, then Gov. O’Malley announced before leaving office that Maryland is “ready” to move forward with fracking and that he was “committed to ensuring that Marylanders have access to the economic opportunities associated with fracking.”  He also signed The Maryland Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement Program (STRIDE) into law that allowed for expedited updates to natural gas infrastructure.

It wasn’t until O’Malley’s 2016 presidential run that he veered off course on energy issues. Eager to divert attention from the Democratic presidential frontrunners and onto himself, he used environmental policy to distinguish his platform from that of the other candidates and appeal to the democratic base.  Even then, O’Malley still stated in the Des Moines Register that fracking “to harvest cleaner-burning natural gas should be allowed with strict regulations as part of a broader strategy to reduce reliance on other fossil fuels.”

Fast forward to Tuesday’s rally and O’Malley again changed his tune to fit the setting. During his 12 minute speech at a rally for divestment, only two of those minutes were actually dedicated to divestment.  He added that maybe next year, “BC can give up fossil fuels for Lent,” a sentiment that is clearly at odds with his track record as governor and mayor – not to mention economics. It’s clear that O’Malley’s flip-flop on divestment was made for purely political reasons and is not a practical policy.

In fact, as we’ve seen time after time, divestment is often used as a symbolic act but does nothing to actually impact climate change. That idea wasn’t lost on the Washington Post, which recently called out Montgomery County in O’Malley’s home state of Maryland about the pointless nature of divesting.  In a recent editorial, the paper pushed back against the naïve idea that divesting would somehow benefit the environment:

“The idea behind the divestiture scheme is to strike a symbolic blow against fossil fuel consumption. The problem with such symbolism is that it’s no more than a feel-good gesture — a hypocritical one — that would achieve no actual reduction in carbon consumption while imposing very real costs on the county’s pension fund. The hypocrisy of selling off fossil fuel firm stocks is that Montgomery, like every other locality in the United States, would continue to consume fossil fuels for countless purposes: to run police cars, ambulances and fire engines, and to heat and cool county-owned buildings, to name just a few.” (emphasis added)

Boston College, where O’Malley now teaches, seems to agree. In a 2015 interview with school’s newspaper, BC Director of Public Affairs Jack Dunn outright denounced fossil fuel divestment stating the endowment financially supports many positive aspects of university life and is “not intended to be an instrument to induce political or societal change.” Simply put, BC, like many other colleges, does not want to divest because it’s too expensive and could leave universities scrambling to fund student programs, faculty research, or facilities upgrades.

BC is not the only Jesuit institution that has opted against divestment. Notre Dame University recently rebuffed student protests and rejected divestment last September. As University President Fr. John Jenkins explained, “We’re sitting in a room that’s heated and lighted, and when we drive to where we go, we use fossil fuels. It seems to me that it would seem to be hypocritical to say, ‘we’re going to divest from the companies we rely on for the energy, what we need to do business.’”

Georgetown University meanwhile vowed to divest its endowment of ties to coal, but the university barely has any financial holdings in the industry. So, just like O’Malley’s speech, it’s all talk but holds no real merit.

As Divestment Facts noted previously, growing consensus among investors and researchers has shown that the divestment strategy is ineffective in achieving the change its proponents hope to see. In fact, a recent study released by Caltech Prof. Bradford Cornell shows how this ill-advised campaign strategy can produce disastrous results for individual school endowments. Or to put it into the words of University of California Regents Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Bacher, divestment is “an ineffective strategy that diverts time, attention and resources away from meaningful solutions on climate change.”

As a whole, the divestment movement seems to care a lot more about feel-good language than it does about meaningful action. Fitting in with that theme, O’Malley’s words to the audience of hopeful college students were a lot of empty talking points offering no clear course of action.