Motion 370, which is to be debated at the Annual Representatives’ Meeting (ARM) of the British Medical Association (BMA) tomorrow morning, calls on the BMA to ‘transfer their investments from energy companies whose primary business relies upon fossil fuels to those providing renewable energy sources’ in light of the health risks posed by climate change.
This is, to my knowledge, the first time that a health sector organisation has publicly considered joining the growing international fossil fuel divestment movement. That it’s coming from the BMA, one of the oldest and most respected medical professionals’ organisations in the world, demonstrates the power of the divestment movement – one that has spread over the past couple of years from a handful of US university campuses, to encompass faith groups, pension funds, and government authorities across the globe – winning endorsements from such high-profile voices as Desmond Tutu, Christina Figueres and even Barack Obama along the way. And it’s working: the fossil fuel industry is scared, as demonstrated by the Australian coal lobby’s efforts to outlaw the campaign.
There are plenty of good reasons, medical and financial alike, for the BMA to divest. The BMA’s values and objectives, and the responsibilities of the profession it represents, demand that it should act on “the greatest global health threat of the 21st century.” Continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry is literally betting against action on climate change mitigation, given that the industry’s continued profitability is dependent on burning more carbon than the planet can take; while the transition to the low-carbon economy could bring huge health co-benefits, from reduced air pollution, healthier transport and diets, and improved urban and rural environments. The arguments for divestment are summarised in our two-page briefing written in advance of the motion.
Chances are, though, that if you’re reading this then you’re already familiar with these arguments. I’d like to consider, instead, what it would mean for the divestment movement, and the future of the world’s energy economy, if the BMA were to divest. Some clues might be found in the BMA’s last high-profile divestment campaign – targeting the tobacco industry.
In 1985, the BMA published a report disclosing details of many prominent health institutions’ investments in tobacco at a time when their advocacy for tobacco control was increasingly vocal. A year later, the American Medical Association wrote to every US medical school calling for divestment from tobacco. Today, UK health institutions - from the medical Royal Colleges and BMA to the Wellcome Trust - screen investments in the tobacco industry from their portfolios as a matter of course. The health profession as a whole has unambiguously stated that public investment in the tobacco industry is unacceptable, a vested interest in an industry hazardous to human health.
Though complex to evaluate, tobacco divestment is widely regarded to have been integral to the tobacco control movement’s successes. Since the BMA’s 1985 report, this has changed from almost ubiquitous access to and advertising of cigarettes, to the point where doctors can now even entertain the idea of making the sale of tobacco illegal.
Could fossil fuel divestment contribute to a similar shift in social norms? The parallels between the tobacco and fossil fuel industries are many. First, their health impacts are comparable in scale. The most recent Global Burden of Disease report attributes 6.3 million avoidable deaths in 2010 to smoking; meanwhile, approximately 7 million were caused by air pollution and climate change is understood to pose one of this century’s greatest threats to health. Secondly, both industries are infamous for their roles in subverting scientific research and undermining human health to protect their profits. In a now-infamous internal memo, the tobacco company Brown and Williamson proclaimed, ‘Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public.’ Big Oil has been the primary heir to Big Tobacco’s playbook, using the same tactics – often even involving the same institutions and researchers – in their efforts to discredit climate science. ExxonMobil alone spent $27.4 million on such work from 1998 to 2012, in addition to the billions spent by the industry on lobbying governments worldwide to reject, weaken or undermine environmental legislation.
If investment in the tobacco industry is incompatible with healthcare institutions’ objectives because of tobacco’s adverse health impacts, then the same logic – given the state of the science of climate change, and the many health co-benefits of sustainability – creates a clear moral imperative for their divestment from fossil fuels. And if the fossil fuel divestment campaign follows the course of the tobacco campaign, then the BMA’s support could contribute to a lasting shift in social norms and the entire political economy of our energy choices.
If you think the BMA should divest tomorrow, then let the world know! Email your local representative; encourage your friends and colleagues do do similarly; talk about it on Twitter (use the hashtag #ARMlive); share the briefing. Tomorrow’s vote could be a pivotal moment in the health sector’s work to find solutions to the climate crisis – or it could see it continuing to fund the companies driving it and blocking legislation.