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?
“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.
“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 email@example.com. 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.