Just as the health industry has ended its financial links with the tobacco industry, so too must it divest from fossil fuels if it serious about tackling the health risks that come with climate change and air pollution, a new report argues.
The report, published this week by multiple U.K.-based non-profit health care organizations, called on the health sector commit to cutting its investments in the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies in the next five years, stating that fossil fuel investments are incompatible with the industry’s moral responsibility to address the health impacts of climate change and pollution.
“It is arguably both immoral and inconsistent for the health sector to continue to invest in industries known to harm health, given its clear responsibility to protect health,” the organizations write of fossil fuel investments in the report. “Continued investment in these companies runs directly counter to the health sector’s repeated calls for action on climate change.”
Climate change: ‘The biggest global health threat of the 21st century’
The report highlights the severe impacts that continued reliance on fossil fuels have on human health. Changes in temperature and rainfall are already contributing to the spread of some vector-borne diseases, especially those spread by mosquitoes, since the insect lays its eggs in standing water, and standing water can increase as humidity and rainfall increases.
Scientists have linked the emergence of mosquito-borne infections, such as Dengue fever and Chikungunya, in the United States and elsewhere to climate warming trends. Likewise, in the Southwestern U.S., a surge in the incidence of valley fever — a disease that’s found in desert soil — has been attributed by some experts to climate change. Furthermore, scientists and humanitarian groups have warned that the effects of climate change on crops around the world threatens our food supply and will also likely worsen hunger and conflict, which could have devastating health implication.
But those are just the long-term consequences. Research shows that there are also more direct health effects of our reliance on fossil fuels. Exposure to air pollution, for instance, has been linked to a stunning range of health effects, including ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, kidney disease, blood clots, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and death.
Fossil fuel extraction and production can cause major health problems too: for example, recent studies have discovered the presence of a number of harmful chemicals — including several carcinogens and a variety of toxic metals — in fracking wastewater, making living near these wells risky and posing a threat to the water supply. Other methods of fossil fuel extraction, such as coal mining, have even worse health-related risks.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated seven million people die prematurely each year because of air pollution — that’s one in eight total global deaths. The WHO expects that climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths every year between 2030 and 2050 due to heat exposure, diarrhea, malaria, and childhood under-nutrition.
“People worldwide are already dying as a result of the health impacts of fossil fuels, but tomorrow’s doctors will have to cope with the full extent of climate change’s health cost,” Alistair Wardrope, one of the report’s co-authors, told the Guardian. “We have a responsibility to our future patients to ensure that health organizations are not funding the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
The health impacts of fossil fuels ‘are unacceptably high’
The report recommends that health organizations review the extent of current direct and indirect investment in the top 200 publicly-listed fossil fuel companies and commit to transparency in regard to these investments. Additionally, it argues that health organizations should immediately freeze all fossil fuel investments, commit to full divestment within five years, and redirect investments towards clean technologies, such as renewables and energy efficiency.
“The link between fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change are clear, and the health impacts are unacceptably high,” concludes Dr. David McCoy, director of health charity Medact, which co-produced the report. “This report sends an unequivocal message that the health sector should end its financial association with the fossil fuel industry.”
Last year, a group of U.K. doctors called on the WHO to declare climate change a public health emergency of international concern, as they did for the Ebola outbreak, saying that its effects could end up killing far more people than Ebola. For their part, the WHO released a report in August 2014 calling climate change ‘a significant and emerging threat to global public health’ and urging governments to take immediate action to mitigate the harm.
Also in 2014, an editorial in the British Medical Journal urged doctors to push their hospitals and universities to divest from fossil fuels. “Those who profess to care for the health of people perhaps have the greatest responsibility to act,” the editorial said, arguing that profiting from the industry is incompatible with protecting human health, last year.
Last year, the British Medical Association — which publishes the British Medical Journal — became the first body of its kind to divest from fossil fuels on the grounds that they pose great risks to human health.
Health care organizations in the U.S. have also called for fossil fuel divestment. One of them, Health Care Without Harm, has also compared divesting from fossil fuels to divesting from tobacco, and has said it’s a a way for hospitals and other health care providers to stand up for health and wellness.
So far, according to 350.org, 24 universities and university systems around the world have pledged to move money away from fossil fuels, along with multiple other cities, foundations, and organizations.