The healthy case for fossil fuel divestment

Alistair Wardrope, Healthy Planet

In 1998, four of the world’s largest tobacco companies were forced to make public decades of internal documents narrating their systematic attempts to undermine public health and legislative attempts to protect public health from the dangers of smoking. One of these documents – an internal memo circulated at Brown and Williamson – stated simply:

“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”

That same year, a group of fossil fuel industry representatives working with the American Petroleum Institute produced a ‘roadmap’ for industry communications in the aftermath of the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol. They advised API members that:

“Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognise) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’.”

The parallels here are no mere linguistic accident. Fossil fuel companies had been aware since the 1970s of the potential threat to human health and wellbeing posed by climate change, and the role their business played in driving it. Like the tobacco industry, they decided to respond, not by amending their practices to protect the health of people and planet, but by subverting science, undermining legislation, and polluting public discourse with misinformation – often produced and disseminated by the same think tanks and scientists-for-hire previously employed by the tobacco industry.

It is easy to understand why fossil fuel companies would resort to such desperate tactics. The reality of climate change does not simply pose an inconvenience for their current practices; it invalidates their entire business model. The continued profitability of this industry relies upon detection and development of ever greater fossil fuel reserves. But we know that, to stand even a 50 per cent chance of keeping temperature rises below the internationally-agreed 2oC limit, 35 per cent of already-listed oil reserves, 52 per cent of natural gas, and a staggering 88 per cent of coal must remain in the ground, unburned. Their business is simply incompatible with a health-supporting climate, as the industry continues to demonstrate: by cutting investment in renewables; increasing development of new, highly-polluting unconventional fossil sources like oil sands and arctic drilling; and staking its future on unabated fossil fuel dependence, with all that entails for our climate.

The health sector’s response to this situation must acknowledge that the practices of this rogue industry pose an immense threat to public health, to break the social licence that affords it the influence to disseminate doubt and derail legislation, and to work to drive the radical transition in our energy economy that public health demands. Health organisations can instigate this process by publicly committing to end all financial interests they have in fossil fuel extraction companies – that is, by divesting. Divestment is a potent signal to the public that the continued profitability of these companies is antithetical to the aims of institutions dedicated to protecting and promoting health, and – just as it did with tobacco – can help stigmatise unethical behaviour and erode the industry’s social power.

That is why an increasing number of health sector organisations – including the British and Canadian Medical Associations and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians – are joining over 500 universities, government bodies, faith groups and other public institutions to have already divested $3.4tn from fossil fuels. It is why 1000 leading health professionals earlier this year wrote to the boards of the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation asking them to divest, supported by the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, representing over 1m medical students worldwide whose future practice will be defined by a changing climate. And it is why world leaders from Ban Ki-moon to Desmond Tutu have expressed support for divestment.

In the words of WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, “what will really make the difference in addressing climate change is how societies choose to invest.” By divesting from fossil fuels, the health sector can instead support the renewable energy transition public health demands, helping to move societies away from carbon dependence towards cleaner energy generation and transport, with potentially massive co-benefits for public health. While climate change may pose the greatest global health threat of the 21st century, by divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in sustainable alternatives, health organisations can help to make it our greatest opportunity for better health.