Group representing one million medical students backs fossil fuel divestment

The fossil fuel industry is a bigger threat to global health than tobacco and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust have a moral obligation to divest from it, an international organisation that represents 1 million medical students has said.

A letter to the charities from the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) called on the charities to drop their fossil fuel company interests, which amount to almost £1.5bn.

The students said investments in coal, oil and gas companies were in direct contravention of the solemn Hippocratic 0ath, which doctors take before they begin their service.

“Continued investment in the fossil fuel industry violates health workers’ obligations to do no harm and grants the industry the social licence to explore and exploit still further reserves, resulting in catastrophic global warming,” said the students.

The IFMSA represents future doctors in 119 countries. The letter was also endorsed by the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) and Medsin-UK and signed by medical student leaders from across the world – including Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

The letter compares the health impacts of tobacco, whichkills six million people each year, with the extreme weather, food insecurity, conflict and mental health impacts of the climate crisis.

“The threat to public health posed by fossil fuels is even greater [than tobacco],” said the students, who noted the medical profession’s leading role in the tobacco divestment movement. “The arguments that led the health sector to divest from tobacco provide a still more compelling mandate for divestment from fossil fuels.

“We share a responsibility to our future patients to address unmitigated climate change – described as ‘the biggest health threat of the 21st century’ – and to advocate for a transition to a healthier, more sustainable economy.”

The two charities are among the world’s largest funders of health research and medical aid. The students called on the Gates Foundation and Wellcome to fulfil their role as leaders in the field and drop their shares in fossil fuels. 

Lucas Scherdel, national director of medical students’ global health charity Medsin-UK, said: “It’s no longer acceptable for organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation to benefit from the fossil fuel industry’s profits when they come at such a huge cost to people’s health.”

The students call echoes the Guardian’s Keep it in the ground campaign, which has attracted 188,000 signatures from readers asking the charities to divest. Both charities have resisted the calls.

In another demonstration of the growing concern of the scientific community towards the investments held by their funders, hundreds of scientists have answered a Guardian call to write to the Gates Foundation and Wellcome expressing their views on divestment.

The scientists roundly applauded the positive impact the charities had made on health, particularly in the developing world, but several wondered whether this mission would be undermined by funding the companies that cause climate change, which will hit the world’s poor disproportionately hard.

Dr Stephen Webster, director of the science communication unit at Imperial College, said the Wellcome Trust must listen to the growing public concern over fossil fuel companies’ impact on the climate.

“With the Guardian’s readers petitioning the Trust so vigorously, we are about to find out whether, indeed, science can listen,” he said. “I think the question to be asked is this: are you convinced that the rationale you apply to the management of your financial holdings does not contradict the reasoning that energises your scientific sponsorship? Or, could it be that, without realising it, you are putting financial return above common sense?”

The respondents included scientists who had received funding from both organisations.

Professor Frank Carey, a consultant pathologist who works on Wellcome-funded research at Dundee University, said: “It is time for these organisations to make a global splash – publicly withdraw funds from the oil, gas and coal industry. It is the only way to remain credible and true to your aims. Scientists understand evidence, data and complex systems. We have the ability and indeed the duty to lead the public and influence opinion. We also have a moral need to persuade our funders to join us in changing the world.”

Dr Ariel Blocker, who has been accredited by the Wellcome Trust with their high-level investigator award, said the trust had a responsibility to guard against the impact of a “carbon bubble” market crash.

“I can not begin to imagine what would happen to biomedical science in this country and also abroad if the Wellcome Trust’s budget were to shrink substantially. Please, please do not take that chance,” she said.

Karl Mathiesen and Dominic Bates, the guardian

This article first appeared on the guardian

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