I have been involved with the fossil fuel divestment movement over the past year, both with the University and through Healthy Planet UK, after coming to terms with the enormity of climate change and the need for urgent action. As a medical student I am compelled by a similar duty of care towards our ecosystem, on which our health depends, and am called to respond to its current symptoms of distress. Divestment offers a way to treat one of the root causes of these symptoms – the continued burning of fossil fuels – through moving investments away from the fossil fuel industry whose business model relies upon burning reserves which hold over five times that which is safe to burn if we are to stay below the 2 degrees Celsius limit of global warming Akin to the health sector leading divestment from the tobacco industry, there is a similar narrative in the response to the health threat of climate change further weighted by tactics utilised by the fossil fuel industry to thwart climate mitigation policy and mar public perception of the reality of climate science. UK universities hold around £5.2 billion worth of investments through their endowment funds in the fossil fuel industry. However, divestment is not simply a matter of money, most divestment decisions have been driven by a moral case. It rests on a simple principle -if it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. For the medical tradition, investing in fossil fuels can be seen to contradict the fundamental principle to “first do no harm”. So far 21 universities, 35 cities, 65 religious organisations and numerous other organisations from around the world including the British Medical Association have committed to divesting from fossil fuels.
Medical institutions and the health community have a unique awareness of climate change through its current and future impacts on human health, but also through the potential immense health co-benefits of tackling climate change such as reducing the disease burden of air pollution, which has recently been attributed to 2000 premature deaths annually in Scotland, and encouraging active travel through reducing our reliance on fossil fuel guzzling cars. This gives an important dimension to the divestment dialogue and the engagement of medical schools and health organisations is sure to be very valuable. On the 3rd February, Healthy Planet are publishing their report “Unhealthy Investments”, co-authored with MedAct, The Climate and Health Council, Medsin and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare. This will be a crucial step towards further engagement on fossil fuel divestment from the health sector. It will involve a panel of expert speakers to discuss the question of whether organisations which work to improve health should continue to invest in fossil fuel extraction and production companies. Should the health sector be taking more of a lead in this issue? There is certainly great potential in engaging with the process and evaluating how best our pension and endowment funds can be invested towards a healthier and more sustainable future.
Eleanor Dow – new Deputy coordinator of Healthy Planet UK, medical student at the University of Edinburgh