Clapp: Divest from Fossil Fuel

by Richard Clapp | 6/25/15 6:55pm

Last week Pope Francis became the latest to add his voice, and moral authority, to the environmental call to action. Climate change is the number one threat to human health over the coming generations. It is a public health calamity. The consequences of a warming environment and unstable climate are already observable in New England, with more severe allergy seasons, worsening childhood asthma and extreme weather events all taking their toll on the physical and mental health of communities across the region.

Fossil fuel divestment is one of the tactics being used to shift our energy production to more renewable and sustainable methods. Ultimately, we have no choice — it is only a matter of time before we must make these changes. Divestment aims to speed this timetable up and can provide funds for investment in renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

The impacts of climate change on health in parts of the United States, such as the drought-stricken Southwest, and around the world are even more severe than in New England. The World Health Organization estimates that globally climate change is currently causing tens of thousands of deaths per year and between 2030 and 2050 “is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.”

In May and June, a heat wave, the second-deadliest in India’s history, caused 2,500 deaths. Another deadly heat wave is currently underway in Pakistan. Global temperature rise will inevitably result in more frequent and longer-duration heat waves in many parts of the world. And those most severely affected, as Pope Francis and others have pointed out, are vulnerable populations in the global South.

The public health community is already focusing on climate change with Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, recently describing it as “the greatest environmental crisis we face in our lifetime.” He further noted, “nothing gets people’s attention quite like a threat to one’s own health.”

Many now accept that the fundamental cause of the current rapid change in the global environment is greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel extraction and combustion. The scientific consensus has been expressed in the various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, most recently in the 2014 Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report. This report concludes, “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

An “all hands on deck” approach is needed to accomplish this. This is what the Alumni for Dartmouth Divestment urged, in support of concerned Dartmouth students, in an April open letter to College President Phil Hanlon, the Board of Trustees and the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility.

Fossil fuel divestment is only a part of the larger societal response that is needed in order to move to safer and more sustainable means of energy production and use. We must also promote energy efficiency, green buildings, smarter grids involving clean sources of energy like solar panels and wind, public transport and light rail trains, more walking and biking pathways and healthy cities programs. Some of this is already happening at Dartmouth and in the Upper Valley, but we need to do more.

Divestment of Dartmouth’s endowment fund’s investments in fossil fuel companies will provide leadership by sending a signal to many other stakeholders and institutions that are considering similar steps. Thirty-five years ago, colleges, churches and other institutions assumed a similar leadership role by divesting from companies operating in South Africa during Apartheid. We need to step up and join the many institutions in the United States and around the world that are divesting from fossil fuels and investing in renewable and sustainable alternative sources of energy. The health of present and future generations depends on it.