Do no harm – Divest

“Those who profess to care for the health of people perhaps have the greatest responsibility to act […] We should push our own organisations […] to divest from fossil fuel industries completely and as quickly as possible, reinvest in renewable energy sources, and more to ‘renewable energy suppliers.”

– BMJ editorial on ‘Climate change and human survival’

One year on from the British Medical Association’s decision to divest from fossil fuels, the health divestment movement celebrates a year of success with two other major health (The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine & Royal Australasian College of Physicians) institutions having followed suit.

To celebrate the anniversary of the BMA’s vote, leading UK health professionals have written to the Wellcome Trust, supporting The Guardian’s Keep It In The Ground campaign, and asking Wellcome’s Board of Trustees to reconsider their position on divestment.

Action to tackle climate change is urgently needed, and it is everyone’s responsibility. As health professionals, we are in a unique position to effect change. Help us reach 1,000 signatures to divest The Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest health charitable institution.

Dear members of the Wellcome Trust Executive Board,

We write as concerned health professionals and academics in relation to the Guardian’s Keep It In the Ground campaign calling on the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation to divest from the world’s 200 largest fossil fuel companies over the next five years.

The Wellcome Trust is an outstanding philanthropic institution whose work has a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of millions worldwide. We congratulate the Trust on its leadership in promoting and funding research into the impacts of climate change, and hope that this work will continue to grow in line with the urgent threat to human health and survival.[1] However, we were disappointed to learn of the Trust’s decision to continue to invest in fossil fuel companies.

It is uncontested that the majority of carbon reserves listed on stock exchanges must remain underground if we are to avoid exceeding a 2°C rise in global mean temperature and the catastrophic health impacts this would have.[2] Our current business-as-usual trajectory commits us to over 2°C warming[3] – a point scientists have described as the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’[4] – within decades.

As the Trust acknowledges, avoiding this scenario demands an urgent transition towards clean energy. Its view, as set forth by Professor Jeremy Farrar,[5][6] is that engagement with fossil fuel companies’ boards is a more effective way to support such a transition than divestment. However, there is little or no evidence to suggest that this approach holds a realistic prospect of reducing global fossil fuel production sufficiently in the limited time available.[7]

We believe a complete transformation of the energy sector is needed, driven by strong climate policies, and that divestment has greater potential to bring this about. The ethical and financial case for fossil fuel divestment is well founded,[8][9] and has been supported by the President of the World Bank[10] and the Director General of the WHO,[11] both public health physicians. Through the political change it has helped catalyse, the same strategy played a vital role in the movements against apartheid and tobacco.[8] As such, we welcome the statement that the Trust would consider this step if engagement proves ineffective.

Our primary concern is that a decision not to divest will continue to bolster the social licence of an industry that has indicated no intention of taking meaningful action.[7] Indeed, many of these companies continue to use their considerable influence to delay political action,[12] as tobacco companies have done previously.[13] Shell’s lobbying against binding EU renewables targets and its decision to drill for Arctic oil, which cannot safely be burned,[14] give additional cause for alarm. Further, having a financial interest in the extraction of ‘unburnable’ reserves may restrict organisations’ capacity to advocate effectively for the policy framework that is needed.

Lastly, divestment rests on the premise that it is wrong to profit from an industry whose core business threatens human and planetary health, bringing to mind one of the foundations of medical ethics – first, do no harm. We believe that, in aligning organisations’ investments with their aims and values, it goes beyond a ‘grand gesture’. The question is not only one of direct, short-term impacts, but of leadership.[4] Health organisations such as the Wellcome Trust have considerable moral and scientific authority, and a decision to divest has the potential to influence policy-makers, other investors and the public, in the UK and internationally.

We thank the Trust for its openness to dialogue and its commitment to transparency, and request that you make public what, specifically, the Trust aims to achieve through shareholder engagement, and by when. We would particularly like to know at what point Trust will divest should these aims not be met, whether on a company-by-company or sector-wide basis.

Yours sincerely,



The 200 fossil fuel companies referenced by the Guardian’s ‘Keep It In The Ground’ campaign are the Carbon Underground 200 list ( This is made up of the world’s 100 largest coal companies and 100 largest oil and gas companies, based on the carbon content of the reserves they hold.


[1] McCoy, D., Montgomery, H., Arulkumaran, S., & Godlee, F. (2014). Climate change and human survival. BMJ, 348.

[3] IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.

[4] Anderson, K., and Bows, A. “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369.1934 (2011): 20-44.

[5] Farrar, J. (25 March 2015). Fossil-fuel divestment is not the way to reduce carbon emissions. The Guardian. [online] Available at:

[6] Farrar , J. (17 April 2015) Fossil fuel investments are an issue on which fair-minded people will disagree. The Guardian. [online] Available at:

[7] Alpern, S. Talking to the Hand: Why Engagement With Fossil Fuel Companies Offers So Little Promise. Clean Yield Asset Management. 2015.

[8] Ansar, A. Caldecott, B. & Tilbury, J. (2013) Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets? Stranded Assets Programme, SSSE, University of Oxford. Available at:…/SAP-divestment-report-final.pdf

[9] Wardrope, A. and Braithwaite, I. Unhealthy Investments: Fossil Fuel Investment and the UK Health Community. Published February 2 2015 Available at:

[10] World Bank. World Bank group president Jim Yong Kim remarks at Davos press conference. 2014. president-jim-yong-kim-remarks-at-davos-press-conference

[11] Chan, M. (2015) Healthy Energy for the Paris Climate Negotiations. Climate Change – The New Economy (CCTNE), G7 Issue. pp58-59 Available at:

[12] Ashton J. (2015) Shell’s climate change strategy: narcissistic, paranoid, and psychopathic – An open letter and speech. 4th European Energy Forum. 2015. Available at:

[13] Wander, N., & Malone, R. E. (2006). Fiscal versus social responsibility: how Philip Morris shaped the public funds divestment debate. Tobacco control, 15(3), 231-241.

[14] McGlade, C., & Ekins, P. (2015). The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 [deg] C. Nature, 517(7533), 187-190.