By Ilona Hale, MD, David Hale, MSc, Env. Mgmt, Courtney Howard, MD, Warren Bell, MD

As physicians we are trained to respond to emergencies – the more serious the diagnosis, the more quickly we respond. The dangers of global warming were recognized by scientists over twenty years ago and there is no longer any serious scientific debate about the existence or cause of anthropogenic climate change. The recently released report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed the many present and future health effects of global warming and climate instability. Increasing drought, food insecurity, extreme weather events, vector-borne disease and wildfires may soon represent some of the most serious threats to human health. Physicians, as guardians of human health, should be actively engaged in addressing this issue. Yet we, as a society and as a profession, are still failing to act in a meaningful and substantive way. Fortunately there are many tools to help us act, one of the most recent being the idea of fossil fuel divestment, similar to the divestment campaign of the 1980s which helped to topple South African apartheid.

The idea of fossil fuel divestment is based on what is referred to as “Terrifying New Math”: Climate experts and governments from around the world have accepted the scientific consensus that an increase in global temperature must be held below 2 degrees Celsius. To remain below this 2-degree target, scientists estimate that we can produce no more than 565 Gt of carbon dioxide. The “terrifying” part is that current known fuel reserves, if burned, represent 2,795 Gt of carbon dioxide. Doing the math, it is evident that this second number is a lot bigger than the first, which means that, if our planet is to survive, most of our current fuel reserves need to stay in the ground – a radical concept challenging our traditional resource-extraction-based approach to economic growth. Clearly, something needs to change.

Despite pledges from governments around the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions, most nations have consistently failed to meet their targets, Canada being among the worst of the offenders.

Expecting that fossil fuel companies themselves will voluntarily move in this direction, leaving their reserves untouched, is unjustified and naive. Corporations simply do what shareholders demand. And therein lies the key to the new divestment campaigns aimed at fossil fuel companies. Proponents are encouraging concerned investors to make their voices heard by withdrawing investments from coal, oil and gas companies, starting with a list of the 200 companies with the largest reserves, and re-directing their investments to other industries that support a healthy climate future. This pressure will provide the stimulus for fossil fuel companies to gradually transition to producing more sustainable forms of energy; it allows them to become part of the solution, building the healthy future that we all want.

Divestment campaigns have been launched at hundreds of colleges and universities, pension funds and religious institutions in a movement that is rapidly gaining momentum. Significantly, members of the British Medical Association have also recently voted to “ transfer their investments from energy companies whose primary business relies upon fossil fuels to those providing renewable energy sources”, the first health organization to do so.

Some investors might fear that divestment could negatively affect their portfolios. On the contrary, many leading economists are predicting an imminent “carbon bubble” based on artificially inflated values of fossil fuel company stocks. This arises from the inclusion of all the reserves which companies hold, without considering that these reserves can never be burned. This “carbon bubble” will leave companies with trillions in “stranded assets” according to the Carbon Tracker Institute, which has links to the London School of Economics. The concept of the carbon bubble has since been supported by the International Energy Agency and the IPCC. Even now, studies looking at divested portfolios found them to provide similar or better returns than their conventional counterparts.

There might also be concerns that abandoning fossil fuel resources in Canada could lead to economic collapse. In fact, the oil and gas industry accounts for only 5% of the Canadian economy. The latest IPCC report concluded that shifting hundreds of billions of dollars into renewable energy from fossil fuels and cutting energy waste would take only 0.06% off of our usual 1.3-3% annual global economic growth. “Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk.” It has also been estimated that non-fossil fuel industries create 6-8 times as many jobs per dollar invested as fossil fuel companies.

Divestment for physicians is particularly important since we cannot, in good conscience, be strong advocates for addressing climate change while continuing to profit from fossil fuel companies. Physicians, through MD Management, have already made a commitment to divest from other unhealthy industries such as tobacco. Every Canadian physician can start by raising the issue with their investment adviser and encouraging their own university, hospital and medical society to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable energy sources.

As physicians dedicated to promoting health, we can no longer sit at the bedside while our patient deteriorates. We have more than enough information to start treatment now. Divestment, one of many tools available, is an important first step.

Ilona Hale is a family physician in Kimberly, BC; David Hale is a professional forester with a masters in environmental management; Courtney Howard is an emergency physician in Yellowknife, NT and a board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; Warren Bell is a family physician in Salmon Arm, BC and a board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.