By Alex Kirby
Climate News Network
LONDON – The body that represents doctors in the U.K. has voted to end its investments in fossil fuel companies − making it the first national medical organization in the world to do so.
A motion passed at the annual representatives’ meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA) − in effect, its annual general meeting − marks its commitment to withdraw financial support for fossil fuels and to pursue instead a corresponding increase in its investments in renewable energy.
This is in keeping with the statement by the recent Lancet Commission that climate change “could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
The BMA motion is understood to have been passed by a majority of about two-thirds, as part of a broader motion calling for a switch to renewable energy and the creation of a new alliance of health professionals focusing on the health effects of climate change.
Tabled by members of the BMA’s Retired Members’ Forum and several of its local committees, the motion is part of growing support for the fossil fuel divestment movement, both internationally and in the U.K.
Supporters of disinvestment argue on two main grounds. They say avoiding the worst impacts of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels; and if world leaders agree to do this, they say, most oil and gas will have to be left in the ground as unburnable, becoming “stranded assets”.
There were some dissenting voices during the debate on the BMA motion, but most of those who opposed it questioned how affordable and achievable it was likely to be, rather than expressing misgivings about what it set out to do.
The clause that called for divestment passed as a “reference,” meaning that the spirit and intent are kept but the BMA’s Council is not required to adhere to the exact wording. However, BMA watchers insist that it does represent a clear commitment to divest.
During the debate, the BMA’s Chair of Council and its treasurer said the Association would seek to divest “carefully and properly,” and not “only if [they] feel like it”.
An editorial published in the British Medical Journal in March called for divestment from fossil fuels because of the “scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health and wellbeing” posed by unmitigated climate change.
The health charities Medact, the Climate and Health Council and Healthy Planet U.K., which represent health professionals and medical students, have since called on other UK health organizations to divest from fossil fuels.
Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the Climate News Network: “The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing divestment movement, including universities, cities and theological institutions and foundations around the world.
“There is a growing body of evidence that many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can improve health in the near term as well.
“Undoubtedly, the principled position of the BMA will encourage other institutions to do the same and increase the likelihood that a strong agreement on climate change can be negotiated by the end of 2015.”
Isobel Braithwaite, a medical student who is the coordinator of Healthy Planet UK, told the Network: “In a sense, this vote is symbolic, because unless an organization has billions to invest it can’t by itself make a huge difference.
“But we think that the leadership the BMA has shown will help to encourage other health organizations, in the U.K. and elsewhere, to follow suit.”
David McCoy, a doctor who chairs Medact, said: “In the same way that ethical investors choose not to profit from tobacco and arms sales, the health community worldwide is correctly calling for divestment from another set of harmful activities.”
The U.K.-based Climate News Network is run by four volunteers, all veteran journalists who have covered climate change for many years for leading British newspapers and broadcasters and are now freelancing.