Fossil fuel divestment and the BPS

Should the Society join the BMA in making a stand on fossil fuel investments?

Last year the British Medical Association (BMA), the representative body of doctors in the UK, voted to end its investments in fossil fuel industries, becoming the first professional health organisation in the world to do so. The move follows mounting evidence that climate change poses a major threat to human health and wellbeing through increased risk of severe weather events (storms, floods, droughts), global food insecurity, the spread of infectious diseases, forced migration and war (Berry et al., 2010; Costello et al., 2009). Among the United Nation’s recent Millennium Development Goals a new goal has been added: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (see tinyurl.com/nasnrsy).

Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require substantial reductions in fossil fuel consumption. In order to have at least a 50 per cent chance of keeping below a surface temperature increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels – the generally agreed threshold for dangerous climate change – 80 per cent of currently listed fossil fuel reserves will need to remain unburned (McGlade & Ekins, 2015). This is the goal of the divestment campaign. The campaign recognises our current dependence on energy produced from fossil fuels and argues for a transition to a low-carbon economy through moving stocks, bonds and other assets from industries whose primary business relies on fossil fuels, to investments in renewable energy.

The BMA’s decision to divest from fossil fuels is analogous to its decision to divest from tobacco industries 30 years ago. Then, as now, the move acknowledges that for a health organisation to invest in and profit from industries that are directly harmful to health is inherently contradictory. Over the past year hundreds of universities, cities, counties, businesses and public organisations have committed to end their fossil fuel investments. Within the health sector groups of health professionals and students such as Medact and Healthy Planet UK are calling on UK health organisations to divest. The BMA’s decision has set a historic precedent – but where is the BPS in this debate?

The BPS has previously demonstrated its eagerness to engage with the threat of climate change by publishing relevant articles and letters in The Psychologist and responding to consultations about the potential health impacts of climate change (e.g. BPS, 2007). Yet the question of whether – or to what extent – the BPS is invested in fossil fuels has, to our knowledge, not been publicly discussed.

Climate change poses an unacceptably high risk to human health and wellbeing and necessitates urgent action. The BPS has an important role in shaping public understanding of these threats and the potential to be a leader in tackling them by committing to divest from fossil fuels and encouraging other organisations to do so. We ask the BPS to publicly clarify its position on fossil fuel investments, withdraw any existing investments, and commit to not investing in these industries
in the future.

Francis Vergunst
Bergljot Gjelsvik
University of Oxford

References
Berry, H.L. et al. (2010). Climate change and mental health: A causal pathways framework. International Journal of Public Health, 55, 123–132.
BPS (2007). Response to the Department of Health/Health Protection Agency consultation: Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK – 2007. Leicester: Author.
Costello A. et al. (2009). Managing the health effects of climate change. The Lancet, 373, 1693–1733 (2009).
McGlade, C. & Ekins, P. (2015). The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C. Nature, 517, 187–190.

Reply from Ray Miller, BPS Honorary Treasurer: The Society takes a range of ethical factors into consideration when making investment decisions about its funds. Investments are reviewed on a regular basis by the Board of Trustees in this context, as well as in accordance with charity legislation that requires we make adequate returns on invested funds for the benefit of the organisation and its members. The Society recognises the importance of balancing ethical and economic considerations and will continue to monitor investments closely with these matters to the fore.

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