Is there anything worse for our health than fossil fuels?

Thursday 12-03-2015 - 16:45

Do health organisations have a moral duty to pull their money out of fossil fuels? The recently published Unhealthy Investments report argues that they do.

Supported by Healthy Planet – a group of medical students taking climate action while advocating for health – Unhealthy Investments explores how climate change negatively impacts on public health.

“Climate change is already attributed to 40,000 deaths around the globe”, explains Healthy Planet convenor Eleanor Dow. “That’s from direct impacts such as climate-related floods, storms, wildfires and heatwaves.”

“We’re also seeing severe biodiversity loss, impacting our food production, nutrition and infectious disease regulation. Plus air pollution is responsible for 1 in 8 deaths worldwide and 29,000 deaths annually in the UK”

The range of impacts affecting public health are huge. But on the plus side, the report also finds that most of the strategies for combatting climate change are part and parcel of improving health, and vice versa.

“There is a huge weight of evidence demonstrating that the factors that really make the biggest difference to public health are not the kind and quality of health care available, but rather the social and ecological determinants of health”, convenor Alistair Wardrope explains.

“From the availability of clean water and sanitation, through living, working and educational conditions, to the ‘planetary boundaries’ of a habitable ecosystem threatened by our carbon intensive society – these are some of the biggest influences on public health”

All of these factors are negatively impacted by the practices of fossil fuel companies, which is why the report concludes that health organisations have a duty to divest. Working through groups like Healthy Planet, this is what more and more students across the UK are calling for.

The British Medical Association has already announced its commitment to divestment, and the organisations behind this report are hoping that this might be the beginning of a wave of divestment from a huge number of health organisations. It wouldn’t even be the first time it’s happened.

In the 1980s, many health organisations pulled their money out of tobacco industry not only because of the industry’s negative impact on public health, but because of its active attempts to cast doubt on the science which proved the harmful nature of tobacco. Clearly, there are strong parallels with the fossil fuel industry today.

That’s why this report is hopeful for change. The heath community has taken divestment action in the past, and could do so again today.

“On the road to the UN climate talks in Paris this December, it’s more vital than ever for health workers to make clear that our carbon addiction is lethal, but also that recovery is possible”, argues Alistair.

“Students can help to provide answers by arguing for the healthier, more just future in which they want to live We can develop more sustainable health systems that would allow us to provide the best possible care for patients today without jeopardising the wellbeing of those in future generations”

This all begins with pulling our money out of the industries which harm our health. But it’s just the first step towards creating truly sustainable public health. We need to work together to promote cleaner air, access to decent food, and a good quality of mental and physical life for everyone.

And as Eleanor puts it, “Improving public health and tackling climate change can be seen as two sides of the same coin”

As the Unhealthy Investments report shows, taking on the fossil fuel industry shouldn’t only be seen as a challenge. Happily, it also presents an opportunity to create the conditions for a healthier UK than there has ever been.

To take action on divestment in the health sector or to just find out more, contact Healthy Planet today.

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