As general pediatricians whose intention is to promote health and wellness in children and youth, we witness the direct and indirect health effects of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The climate crisis looms as an existential threat to humans and many other species. Due to their size, metabolism, developmental stages, and behaviors, children, particularly those living in poverty and in racial/ethnic minority communities, disproportionately suffer from climate change-related health problems such as allergic rhinitis and asthma, heat stroke, prematurity, poor mental health, and vector-borne diseases (e.g., Zika). These health problems are a direct consequence of higher temperatures, severe storms, flooding, and forest fires. Climate-related disasters also decrease crop yields, exacerbating famine and migration, violence, and war. While clinicians consider how to address the clinical consequences of the climate crisis (adaptation to climate change), we can work together to mitigate additional harms by “greening” our own practices and advocating for the urgent transition away from burning fossil fuels toward reliance on sustainable power; one way to achieve this transition is by cutting cash flow to fossil fuel companies, e.g., divesting from fossil fuels personally, in pension plans, and in professional organizational investments.
Mining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels emit GHGs, such as CO2 and methane, which are the major causes of global heating and climate change. We urge clinicians to consider not only how to improve clinical care but also to join collective action with other individuals, institutions, and organizations to reduce GHG emissions. Individual action, while vitally important, is dwarfed by the power wielded by the fossil fuel industry, which, like the tobacco industry, has known for years about the harms it causes, has tried to cover it up and cast doubt on settled science, and pays politicians and the mainstream media to look the other way, putting corporate profits ahead of human well-being.
Divestment means removing investments from unethical companies that compromise social good. In the early 1980s, divestment strategies signaled social disapproval of South African apartheid. Divestment is a campaign within a larger social movement that includes education, non-violent protests, and direct advocacy. While divestment and raising public awareness may not directly shift all large investments, they signal societal expectations and expand awareness. The impact of divestment can be multiplied by reinvesting in clean, renewable, sustainable energy and adopting more energy-efficient practices such as moving from individual automobiles to public transportation, walking, and bicycles.
Divesting may be challenging due to the complexities of modern investments, fiduciary responsibilities, inertia, and disinformation campaigns (e.g., “natural” gas is an essential part of a clean energy transition). For example, many modern investments are made not in single stocks, but in bundled or mutual funds which may obscure investments in fossil fuel companies; even some ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investment funds include some fossil fuel investments. Fossil fuel advocates claim excellent financial returns based on historical patterns in which the true costs excluded environmental costs and health consequences; advocates imply that divesting will hurt investors’ returns without considering health costs, the increasing costs of lawsuits, environmental clean-up, the costs of increasingly severe climate-related disasters, and stranded assets. There is no economic growth on an uninhabitable planet.
Leaders in health professional organizations have already committed to divestment, including the American Medical Association, The British Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and more than 200 philanthropies and 1,300 institutions. We can join these efforts and encourage our organizations to take a formal stance to establish a precedent for values-based investing.
Clinicians who seek to join others in the fight against climate change can join organizations, such as the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, Practice Greenhealth, and Healthcare Without Harm, to join others in this collective charge. While the climate crisis might make some of us feel like we want to be ostriches with our heads in the sand, joining your clinical colleagues to share your voices to preserve our future world can help bring new energy and meaning to our daily work.
Sandra H. Jee is a board-certified pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at the Center for Community Health and Prevention at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. She graduated from Yale College, completed her medical degree with distinction in research at the University of Rochester, her pediatric residency at New York University and the University of Michigan, and earned a master’s degree in public health and a pediatric health services research fellowship from the University of Michigan. Additionally, she completed a fellowship in integrative medicine at the Andrew Weill Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and received training in pediatric environmental health through the New York State Children’s Environmental Health Scholars Program. Currently, she serves as the director of the Finger Lakes Children’s Environmental Health Center in Rochester, NY. This center is part of the first statewide network for Children’s Environmental Health Centers, collaborating with academic and community partners to provide education and outreach on children’s environmental health priority areas, including climate change.
Vi Nguyen is a pediatrician.