Doctors need to lead the way on divestment from fossil fuels

In the recent weeks we’ve seen frequent headlines alerting people around the country to dangerous heat waves.  Physicians and nurses see these headlines and the human results of the heatwaves in the form of heat illness, people burdened with lung ailments and suffering from deteriorating air quality, and a range of individual harms brought on by wildfires and torrential downpours.   Current trends in extreme temperatures are alarming and clearly linked to climate change.

Amid the headlines and the spreading realization that something is different, one bold step that was taken by doctors to reverse the trend lines of climate change went largely unnoticed. At the recent annual meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA), doctors voted to divest their financial investments from fossil fuel companies. The vote sets in motion the move to withdraw the AMA financial investments from an industry that is clearly endangering Americans and people around the world.  Drilling for fossil fuels takes carbon sources out of the ground that were left there over millions of years and releases them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane — two gases that drive global warming.

The effectiveness of past large-scale divestment campaigns demonstrates their power. I am old enough to remember the divestment movement against South Africa, which started slowly at first, led by those who understood that financial pressure could be a force for change. That movement picked up speed as apartheid South Africa was denied the right to host significant athletic events and then saw its economy squeezed to the breaking point because of its racist policies.

We’ve seen this in medicine as well. When it became clear that 1,000 Americans were dying every day because they used tobacco products, the AMA spoke out powerfully against tobacco use, divested of its investments in tobacco products and then urged all other investors to do the same. The option of speaking with our dollars sparked “social choice” investments, which became a vehicle for investors small and large alike to divest from stocks ownership in tobacco companies that sold products that were deadly when used exactly as intended.

We should follow the path of the AMA on this and learn from the success of past movements. Individuals and organizations must move decisively away from fossil fuels if we are to protect our own health and well-being and that of our fellow human beings. Scientists who have been studying the situation for over a quarter of a century have given us increasingly strong warnings, building to louder and louder alarm bells. AMA’s action is reflective of a broader trend we’ve seen: 21 medical societies have started to act, through a Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, to alert patients and the public about the unseen health harms of climate change. This coalition, which represents well over half of America’s physicians, joined this fight because the steps that are needed to combat climate change also have immediate benefits in improving our health through cleaner air and water.

Physicians know that the rising heat from climate change is contributing to the spread of diseases from ticks and mosquitos, and that people are displaced, often with lasting consequences, when heavy rains cause dangerous flooding.  We now know that approximately 4600 people — not 67 people as originally estimated — died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, a storm that was greatly strengthened by the warming of the Caribbean waters.

We also recognize that the particles that remain after burning fossil fuels are inhaled as air pollution. That pollution, along with other pollutants like smog and wildfire smoke, not to mention increased pollen counts, cause harm to the respiratory systems of many adults as well as to the development of newborns and growing children.

The growing concern over climate change resulting from the burning fossil fuels is what drove the AMA to vote for divestment based on the clear-headed realization that greater action is needed if we are to address the societal and worldwide health crisis that is emerging because of climate change.  This decision demonstrates a way forward for anyone who cares about how climate change is making us sicker. All societies, associations, and businesses whose focus is health should look to the success of past divestment campaigns and act for health.

Mona Sarfaty is director, Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

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