Healthcare Workers Call on Hospitals and Medical Institutions to Divest From Fossil Fuels

The global fossil fuel divestment campaign continues to grow, but the healthcare sector has thus far refrained from large-scale divestment. A coalition of health professionals wants to change that.
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Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A coalition of healthcare professionals and climate finance organizations are calling on hospitals to divest their pension and retirement funds from fossil fuels, citing the severe public health hazards from climate change. 

“The research on the severe, ubiquitous and accelerating consequences to public health from climate change is unequivocal,” Dr. Ashley McClure, a primary care physician and co-Executive Director of the California-based nonprofit Climate Health Now, said in a statement. “Just as many leading health organizations have divested from tobacco companies given the unacceptable health harms of their products, our institutions must now invest in alignment with public health and collective safety by urgently divesting our resources from the coal, oil, and gas corporations fueling the climate crisis.”

Around the world, more than 1,500 institutions have announced divestments from fossil fuels with commitments that total more than $40 trillion, according to a database maintained by climate advocacy groups 350.org and Stand.earth. The pledges come from governments, philanthropies, universities, faith-based organizations, and pension funds. 

But activists are pressing on a new front, demanding that hospitals and healthcare institutions sever their financial ties with fossil fuels. Named “First, Do No Harm,” the coalition of healthcare professionals and climate finance organizers is calling on medical institutions to exclude oil, gas, and coal from their pensions and retirement funds. They are also asking healthcare workers across the country to join in the effort and pressure their employers to take that step. 

“Our sector has to act on this. This is a healthcare issue. Climate policy is health policy. We can no longer ignore the voluminous research that can directly connect serious healthcare threats to fossil fuel air pollution, for example,” Don Lieber, a certified surgical technician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told DeSmog. 

Many hospitals do have plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in their operations, but that only addresses part of the problem. “Hospital systems, including ours at Sloan Kettering have a fantastic sustainability program that focuses on these important operational reductions. We need that. But we cannot ignore the other half,” Lieber said, referring to the institutions’ investments in fossil fuels. 

Lage medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, Sloan Kettering, Kaiser Permanente, and MD Anderson still have investments in fossil fuels.

“Fossil fuel divestment advocates have had tremendous successes in many sectors. Institutions like Harvard, the State of New York Retirement System, and ABP (Europe’s largest pension) are examples of institutions with recent divestment commitments,” said Amy Gray, Senior Climate Finance Strategist at Stand.earth. “The healthcare sector has been remarkably silent, and it’s time for that to change.”

Lieber helped organize medical professionals at Sloan Kettering, calling on the institution to divest in a letter in September 2019. But the financial leadership at Sloan Kettering rejected the plea, citing a Trump-era Department of Labor rule that narrowed the criteria for allocating investments. 

According to that rule, finalized in 2020, instead of taking environmental or other social justice values into account, pension fund managers were required to look only at financial returns. The Trump administration took that step as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment trends were becoming increasingly popular, and the fossil fuel divestment campaign was continuing to gather strength.

In March 2021, the Biden administration said it would rework that rule, and in the meantime, wouldn’t enforce the Trump-era requirements. In October, the Labor Department issued its new proposal, once again allowing fund managers to include climate or other ESG considerations into their investment decisions. That rule is expected to be finalized in the coming months. 

That leaves hospitals and other medical institutions with no excuse to continue rejecting fossil fuel divestment, Lieber said. If Sloan Kettering or any other hospital system narrowly looks at financial returns, they are “blinding themselves to any other considerations, which we as healthcare providers…we cannot accept that,” he added. 

Moreover, divestment “has precedent,” he said. “There was exclusionary criteria for tobacco. There has been exclusionary criteria for firearms.” 

But one need not look back in history. Divestment for non-financial reasons is playing out right now at a global scale. 

“As we speak today, there is a rush of institutional divestment in all things Russia. This ironically includes the oil industry, which is taking so much of its money out of Russia because of this crisis in Ukraine,” he added. “They are doing it quickly, and they are doing it for ethical reasons. Hospitals can do this with fossil fuels, and they should be doing it.”

Sloan Kettering did not respond to a request for comment. 

“Let’s try to shine a larger spotlight on our own sector. We are proud of it. We love the work we do. But they’ve been behind on this issue,” Lieber said. “It’s time our institutions live up to the very ideal they hold for us as we treat our patients — first, do no harm.”

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Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. He has been featured in Oilprice.com, The Fuse, YaleE360 and NACLA.

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