We agree with much of what Farrar has to say. That climate change, as one of the greatest threats to global health of the 21st century, demands concerted action from health organisations. That this requires a commitment to a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy in order to remain within a 2C warming carbon budget. And that consideration of the impacts on human health and wellbeing need to be at the forefront in planning a just and sustainable transition. However, where we disagree is in the role of fossil fuels – and the fossil fuel industry – in making that transition.
Farrar maintains that fossil fuels are “essential to the economy, life, and health,” pointing to the role fossil fuel energy has played in driving development in many low- and middle-income countries, with consequent health benefits. While we do not dispute the role of fossil fuel energy as an engine of growth and better health, Farrar errs in mistaking this historical accident for a physical necessity. In fact, renewables are better placed to bring the health benefits of energy access to the world’s developing economies, particularly for the 84% of communities lacking energy living in rural areas where grid expansion is prohibitively expensive. And renewable energy will not undermine this progress with negative local health impacts like the air pollution from coal that now costs China 4% of its GDP. And of course, any health improvements from development will fail to materialise if that development is undermined by a warming world, the health impacts of which will hit the poorest hardest.
Nonetheless, selective engagement may have its place alongside divestment. But it is only possible with companies who display a realistic commitment to keeping warming under 2C – one that moves beyond words. We applaud the Trust’s acknowledgement of the inconsistency of coal and tar sands development with a healthy climate. But so too is pursuing Arctic drilling, not to mention funding attempts to undermine climate science or legislative efforts on mitigation policy – of which companies in which the Trust invests are guilty. For companies that fall short of the required action, divestment must follow.
While we focus here on the Wellcome Trust, that is only because their commitment to public debate permits us to engage in this conversation. The same arguments apply to all health sector organisations, who share the same responsibilities for health of people and planet alike.
If, like us, you're convinced that it's time for health organisations to ditch their dirty investments, here are a few things you can do:
- Sign the Guardian petition on the Keep it in the Ground campaign website, and share with friends, colleagues, tutors and anyone else who might be interested.
- If you're a health worker supportive of the campaign, get in touch with the Guardian (and/or us!) as they are looking for support, and possible spokespeople.
- Are you funded by Gates, Wellcome or other grant organisations whose dirty energy investments are undermining your research? Then write to them, or let us know to help coordinate a collective demonstration of the inconsistency of better health and fossil fuel dependence.
- Read more in our Unhealthy Investments report.