Fossil fuels make people ill. The British Medical Association acknowledged the point this week. Exercising their duty to safeguard public health, doctors attending its Annual Representative Meeting voted that the body should stop investing in fossil fuels, “if possible, practicable and feasible”.
Delegates called on the BMA to “transfer their investments from energy companies whose primary business relies upon fossil fuels to those providing renewable energy sources.”
Although the vote is also a strong, more general commitment in the fight to address, and try to slow, climate change, the specific emphasis on health could be quite useful in appealing to the public.
Earlier this year the Lancet Commission described climate change as “the greatest threat to human health of the 21st Century”.
The same health argument was used by President Obama in his historic commitment in the spring to cut power station Co2 emissions by 30% by 2030. He is able to do that, and bypass Congress, because emissions have an impact on air quality and pollution and therefore health.
The divestment movement is a new and promising development in the fight against climate change. I think it will cause the oil giants trouble over coming months and years, although they seem nonchalant now.
It centers on the argument that about two thirds of the the oil and gas reserves the big companies have identified and have options to extract must be left in the ground if we’re not to exceed the 2°C rise in temperatures which scientists say is about as much as we can get away with.
The oil majors are not impressed with this argument. They speak with such confident authority about their future, and about how they can carry on extracting, that it’s easy to be seduced into thinking they know what they’re doing, we should trust them and perhaps this fossil fuel-driven crisis won’t be be anything like as bad as predicted.
Besides, they probably believe governments lack the political courage to take action to limit temperature rises. But if governments cannot tell them, perhaps shareholders can.
What is fascinating about the BMA vote (although I trust the words “if possible, practicable and feasible” will not reverse it yet) is that it approaches the issue through something that is very immediate to many people who come into doctors’ surgeries, the air pollution that makes people ill.
There was a very strong reminder earlier this year on several occasions when air quality in cities, particularly London, was so poor that people with respiratory ailments were advised not to go outside. A lot of that pollution came from diesel engines.
And could it be that the general public are more likely to take the word of doctors on the perils of climate change, while continuing to doubt the 97% of scientists who believe that human action in burning fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change?
It’s an important vote, which doesn’t appear to have attracted much publicity. That’s not unusual. The BBC, for instance, is becoming notorious for steering clear of anything to do with climate change, unless it is the publication of the very biggest doorstopper reports. Even the Guardian missed this piece of news, at least on the day it broke. As usual I found it on Twitter.
As far as I can see the BMA is the biggest and most influential body in the UK to divest, to remove its investment from fossil fuels. It follows the admirable Quakers, who voted to divest earlier this year. It is also said to be the first health-focused institution in the world to do so.
The movement is much bigger in the USA, where a number of cities and universities have voted to divest.