Health community poised to join fossil fuel divestment campaign

Health community poised to join fossil fuel divestment campaign

By Tim Bushman

The burgeoning movement to pressure colleges and universities across the globe to divest their financial interests from fossil fuel companies continues to pick up steam. And now the health care community appears poised to join the effort.

A recent article in the Guardian highlights an important opportunity for the medical sector in the United Kingdom to shed fossil fuel investments from the basis of a moral standpoint after a newly-released report by a commission of medical organizations called for such action.

From the Guardian:

The report cites climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” and says air pollution from fossil fuels also causes millions of premature deaths a year. The organisations argue that the health sector, and in particular the £18bn Wellcome Trust, should not be helping to fund the harm they exist to tackle.

“The link between fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change are clear, and the health impacts are unacceptably high,” said Dr. David McCoy, director of health charity Medact, which produced the report with the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, the Climate and Health Council, Healthy Planet UK, and Medsin. “This report sends an unequivocal message that the health sector should end its financial association with the fossil fuel industry.”

Students protest and demand fossil fuel divestment at Tufts University.

Students protest and demand fossil fuel divestment at Tufts University.

The broader divestment campaign, spearheaded by organizations like, is aimed at getting various academic entities to purge themselves of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are deemed to be “unethical or morally ambiguous,” pressuring schools to withdraw such funding from polluting industries that largely contribute to climate change. Many see academia as being caught in a moral conundrum; investing loads of money in fossil fuel companies while at the same time publishing heaps of empirical evidence about the damage that the burning of fossil fuels is doing to the planet.

This, quite obviously, seems like a glaring conflict of interest. Fortunately, there are historical precedents of divestment movements that have enjoyed success and may provide a blueprint for the future. The anti-apartheid movement, stopping the violence in Darfur, and the pushback against tobacco advertising all enjoyed some levels of success in diverting funds to help fight back against these social ills. Already, more than 180 institutions (city authorities, universities, churches) have committed to divesting $50 billion in fossil fuel investments.

In the interest of public health and the state of the planet, the next big push to divest from fossil fuel holdings should come from the health community.

The new report from the medical coalition called for five main recommendations:

  • A review of direct and indirect investments in the top 200 publicly-listed fossil fuels companies and more transparency in such investments.
  • A commitment to freeze all new fossil fuels investments effective immediately.
  • The selling off of all direct equity holdings in such companies in 1-2 years.
  • A commitment to full divestment from fossil fuels within 5 years.
  • A redirecting investments towards technologies such as renewable energy companies or other organizations that are responsible for protecting and promoting public health and a healthy environment.

Professor Martin McKee, President of the European Public Health Association, added that fossil fuels “can no longer be considered an ethical investment” of which presents “one of the defining challenges of our time.”

The call for moral accountability may be likened to the recent announcement that CVS will no longer sell cigarettes in its stores because it contradicts with their health-focused business model.

The time has come for the medical sector to practice what it preaches and disallow any continued investments in fossil fuel companies that continue to extract and burn dirty energy that damages public health and the environment. The British Medical Association has already voted to divest from fossil fuels, becoming the first health organization in the world to do so. Now is the time for the collective medical community to follow suit and continue the legacy of divestment campaigns to safeguard health and help tackle the climate crisis. It is time to repeat history.

Tim Bushman is a member of CCL’s Health and Climate action team.


Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.