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POV: Why BU Needs to Divest from Fossil Fuels

It’s a matter of public health

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Fossil fuel divestment has become a hot topic of conversation and action, especially following the United Nations COP21 climate summit in Paris in December 2015 and ongoing questions concerning the long-term stability of the global oil market. In our own community, the Boston University Board of Trustees Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing is continuing its consideration of whether to recommend to the board that BU divest its endowment from fossil fuel holdings.

Over the past year we have heard from many sides in this conversation, and arguments both for and against divestment have been made that considered economic, political, and environmental perspectives, and even questions of free speech and the efficacy of divestment. But one viewpoint that we have not heard much about is the impact continued fossil fuel investment will have on public health. As a second year medical student at the BU School of Medicine, public health is a topic I think about frequently. As someone with a deep appreciation of nature and an Earth-centered understanding of the world, I find it impossible to ignore the issue of the public health impacts of climate change.

Let’s get right to the point: as a student of science, I stand behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that tells us that climate change is happening at unprecedented rates and is due to the burning of fossil fuels by human beings. However, it’s not just climate scientists who are telling us that it is time to be seriously worried. When we have the editors of  respected medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine warning that climate change will lead to unacceptable adverse impacts on public health by way of more severe heat waves, more extreme weather, and increased flooding, isn’t it time to listen and act?

Howard Bauchner, a MED professor of pediatrics, on leave from BU since being appointed editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2011, wrote in a 2014 JAMA editorial:

“Today, in the early part of the 21st century, it is critical to recognize that climate change poses the same threat to health as the lack of sanitation, clean water, and pollution did in the early 20th century. Understanding and characterizing this threat and educating the medical community, public, and policymakers are crucial if the health of the world’s population is to continue to improve during the latter half of the 21st century.”

Like it or not, that future is coming, if not already here, and it is increasingly clear that it will hold further increased greenhouse gases as well as smog pollution, food and water scarcity, and the aggravated spread of infectious diseases that will affect many, but with disproportionate impacts among disadvantaged populations. These disparate impacts should be particularly alarming for Boston University, whose affiliate hospital, Boston Medical Center, is by far the largest safety-net hospital for underserved patients in New England.

As a future physician who will soon be taking care of her own patients, I am deeply concerned by the added burden these impacts will place on our already strained health care system and communities. I also find it interesting that despite our usual human-centric perspectives on environmental issues, these public health impacts are often ignored when people talk about climate change. In fact, the public health threat from fossil fuel investment and activities should be at the core of the University’s own deliberations. If it is true that the Board of Trustees’ own standard for divestment lies in “the degree of social harm caused by the actions of the firms in the asset class” and that “a divestment action should be considered rarely and only in the face of human suffering that is wholly inconsistent with the moral and ethical values of Boston University,” then the question of whether or not to divest is clear.

What Boston University gains or loses financially from fossil fuel investments is, in this public health context, quite secondary. Ultimately, it also matters little what the financial impact of divestment will be on fossil fuel companies. What matters is that it is unethical and morally misguided for an institution like Boston University, which prides itself on educating students for the future in a globally interconnected community, to invest in energy extractors and suppliers that are actively contributing to progressively worsening health crises and our own perilous future.

It is for this reason that I feel compelled to join with many others and raise my voice in support of divestment by BU. As deliberations and welcomed public forums on this critically important issue continue in the coming days, I will be meeting with President Robert A. Brown to deliver a petition signed by over 180 students from BU’s Medical Campus calling on the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuel interests in the face of the immense social harms resulting from the negative environmental and public health effects of climate change. Those 180 signatories include students enrolled in every school on the Medical Campus: the School of Medicine and its Division of Graduate Medical Sciences, the Goldman School of Dental Medicine, and the School of Public Health. We aspire to improve the human condition and create a healthier and more equitable future, and we urge the entire BU community and the Board of Trustees to stand with us. It is time for Boston University to exemplify important public health leadership and divest from fossil fuels.

Paige Machado, (CAS’14, MED’18) cofounder of the student and faculty group BUMC Climate Action Group, can be reached at pmachado@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

11 Comments

11 Comments on POV: Why BU Needs to Divest from Fossil Fuels

  • Student on 02.22.2016 at 6:39 am

    How does climate change lead to “aggravated spread of infectious diseases that will affect many?”

    • Chen Cao on 02.22.2016 at 9:03 am

      Actually, this point has been brought forth numerous times in both literature and current event. This is by no means comprehensive, but the most salient point is to look at the trend in rising number of infectious diseases in relation to our changing climate globally recent decade–and the profound impact on our global population.

      A great deal of pathogens–the living organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi that carry these diseases–are extremely sensitive to temperature. These pathogens are not necessarily bad. But changing their environment will affect how they survive and infect humans and other living organisms [1]. Thus, when you examine the recent trend of above-average temperatures globally, it makes sense that even minuscule temperature changes can knock off the balance and have a rippling effect in potential spread of new infectious diseases.

      One relevant example is the Zika virus that affecting millions in Latin America. This year, especially, the strong El Niño weather pattern has caused unprecedented rainfall in areas in Latin America. In combination with the above-average temperatures, the virus has been linked to higher rates of “mosquito-biting and accelerate the development of mosquito larvae”. [2]

      Furthermore, from a population health perspective, with climate change, there has been a massive scale of human migration as a result of the weather- and natural disasters-related events. The Dean of the SPH brought up this point, “forced migration and the attendant processes of adaptation constitute a powerful set of stressors that may exacerbate pre-existing health problems and increase risk of new-onset health problems” [3]. This speaks to not only infectious diseases, but also chronic, long-term diseases.

      These two small examples just shows the profound impact climate change has already had on our global community and will continue to do so if we do not find ways to mitigate and reverse our impact.


      [1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/el-nino-climate-pattern/
      [2] http://www.citylab.com/weather/2016/01/zika-virus-el-nino-climate-change-infectious-disease/433905/
      [3] http://www.bu.edu/sph/2015/09/06/climate-change-and-population-health/

      • Peter on 02.22.2016 at 10:49 am

        It’s unlikely ZIKA, a fairly begnign virus, is the cause of the current scare in Latin/South America. More likely the cause is a Monsanto mosquito larvacide (Pyriproxyfen), that acts as a juvenoid (endocrine disruptor)

  • Student on 02.22.2016 at 8:49 am

    This just makes sense, I always ask my doctor for investment advice. Paige, how else should I be allocating my portfolio? I always thought the objective of investing was to gain a profit but you really opened my eyes.

    • AS on 02.22.2016 at 9:28 am

      I agree with you here. This “advice” comes from a person who doesn’t understand the purpose of investment.

      But I would also go a few steps further here:
      (1) If divestment from fossil fuels is the goal, and there should be more “acceptable” investment instead – will students accept an even higher cost of college if those acceptable investments turn out to be bad from a financial point of view?
      (2) Why stop there? Should BU, with all its rhetoric about climate change start converting to a 100% clean energy university? And simply pass on the additional cost to students or accept a lower a lower salary for administrative people who push this?

      It seems to me too easy to always just talk about who should cut back on fossil fuel consumption and investment. Lead by example, not by words!

      • Jose Artigas on 02.28.2016 at 10:34 am

        “will students accept an even higher cost of college if those acceptable investments turn out to be bad…?”
        “[Will BU] simply pass on the additional cost to students or accept a lower salary for administrative people who push this?”

        Of these 3 statements on potential consequences, none are inevitable. The BU admin should allay concerns about rising costs by acknowledging that eco-friendly energy (& management) decisions may cost more, but will not be passed on to students & their parents. The 3rd possible outcome may be unavoidable considering BU’s long history of continually raising tuition & fees. But the Business Model of higher ed already, & deliberately, adds unnecessary costs thru administrative bloat & vanity construction. We can do better than that, much better. Many of these costs can be avoided by higher-level administrators agreeing to smaller raises (not pay cuts) during transition periods. It’s time to step up & show leadership!

    • Katherine N. on 02.22.2016 at 12:22 pm

      It seems that the author is advocating a values-based investment approach. This often comes at a cost to profits, but comes with the benefit of being morally consistent. If you run a business which aims to fight lung cancer, it makes sense to not invest in cigarette companies. BU is trying to promote values of sustainability and improving public health, even if that may come at the cost of reducing the overall bottom line.

  • Douglas Zook on 02.22.2016 at 10:24 am

    Thoughtful, appropriate and welcomed piece Paige.

    As for concerns expressed in a comment to your piece about costs, it is far more cost effective to plan such that new budgeting for moving coastal residents, building sea walls, and developing new energy infrastructure are kept as minimal as possible. The current fossil fuel ultra-dependency and investments will only exacerbate climate change impacts and thus be far more costly for current and future generations.

  • Mike on 02.22.2016 at 11:01 am

    Paige, how about inserting a link in this article to your Climate Group Facebook page?

  • John on 02.22.2016 at 6:24 pm

    I commend you for a thoughtful and generally well written appeal, but I find it disappointing to see the reliance on the suspect / misleading (at best) claim of “overwhelming scientific consensus”. It does a disservice to your argument and it simply is not intellectually honest. I suggest making your case in other ways. The tired old “97% agree” claim has far too many valid criticisms. Just one available article that presents some interesting points about consensus was arrived at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/425232/climate-change-no-its-not-97-percent-consensus-ian-tuttle

    • Jose Artigas on 02.28.2016 at 10:38 am

      The consensus still exists. Perhaps it’s not as high as 97%, but it’s too easy to target that specific % as a means of undercutting the struggle against impacts of climate change. We should subtract most scientists (sic) whose research is funded by fossil fuel corporations & their enablers. With their conclusions bought & sold, & thus largely predetermined, they are outliers who should be left out of consideration.

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