Medical Observer comment: Why doctors must lead fossil fuel fight

Medical Observer comment: Why doctors must lead fossil fuel fight

IN 2013, the federal government’s Future Fund and many superannuation funds dumped investments in tobacco companies following a long campaign by health groups.

Until then doctors, nurses and other health professionals were working publicly against the tobacco industry while simultaneously and unwittingly supporting it through their superannuation investments. In total $1 billion was divested, an amount that would put to shame the total invested in anti-smoking campaigns.

Apart from tobacco, what else are health professionals invested in? Most super funds have investments in fossil fuels, an industry intimately linked to the problem of climate change. If we are to keep to the agreed ‘safe’ 2°C limit of warming, we are only allowed to burn 20% of current reserves. The coal budget is even tighter, only 12%.

To put this into perspective, if we burnt all of Australia’s known fossil fuel reserves, we would claim two-thirds of the world’s carbon budget. But companies like BP aggressively pursue exploration and are dismissive of ‘unburnable’ carbon.

Internal documents from Royal Dutch Shell assume a 4°C rise while the company publicly pronounces its commitment to tackling climate change.

Business as usual has us on track for a minimum 4°C rise by 2100. The longer we delay action, the less that trajectory can be altered. The recent Lancet report on climate change and health warns that climate change could undermine the last half century’s gain in development and global health.

If we took a stance on tobacco, why shouldn’t we take a stance on fossil fuels?

The Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger, proposes an overwhelming moral and financial case for divestment. The newspaper’s ‘Leave it in the Ground’ campaign targets the world’s two leading health charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, urging them to divest fossil fuel holdings.

While acting for the public good, these two organisations undermine their own moral authority by investing in a sector whose actions, if left unchecked, would harm the health of billions.

In an open letter to the Wellcome Trust, high-profile health practitioners recently wrote that “divestment rests on the premise that it is wrong to profit from an industry whose core business threatens human and planetary health, bringing to mind one of the foundations of medical ethics — first, do no harm”.

As doctors, we are not immune to the same criticisms if we remain invested in fossil fuels and continue to bolster the social licence of an industry that shows no intention of taking meaningful action.

The Lancet report exhorts the health profession to take a leading role in ending society’s “addiction” to fossil fuels. It’s time we aligned our personal investments and those within our representative bodies to our medical ethics.

Last year the BMA voted to end investments in fossil fuels, as did the RACP; it is time the AMA, the RACGP and other medical organisations did likewise. Through leadership and a foundation of ethics, we can make a difference. For the sake of our children it can’t be business as usual.


First published in Medical Observer on 5 August 2015

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