Speaking Through Your Spending: Fossil Fuel Divestment & the Health Care Field

By path2positive

Donald Trump is under pressure to divest himself of his business holdings, which may create a conflict of interest once he is President. As the new year begins, climate and health advocates seeking new and effective ways to make an impact may wish to follow suit – by joining the international movement of public and private organizations that are aligning mission and investments by divesting-- i.e., eliminating fossil fuels from their financial holdings.

First associated with South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and more recently with campus activism, divestment means withdrawing one’s money from companies, stocks, funds, and related industries that contravene one’s values. According to Healthcare Without Harm (HCWH), it can also be an important strategy for addressing climate change. “The continued burning of fossil fuels will dramatically affect food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infection diseases. Divestment can help bring attention to these risks and the effect they will have on public health and the overall health of the planet.”

It’s not merely a symbolic gesture. (Although that’s important, as medical professionals and organizations hold authority as role models.)  Both withdrawing money and reinvesting it elsewhere leverage positive change by sending economic signals. As former New York Mayor and business titan Michael Bloomberg wrote in a recent op-ed on business transparency, “A properly functioning market will price in the risks associated with climate change and reward firms that mitigate them.”    

This blog will cover the basics of divestment for hospitals, medical centers, private practices, and individuals, to help you decide if this type of climate action is right for you.

A Growing Trend

Forbes magazine has predicted, “Climate change could be the most important long-term trend for investors.” And indeed, divesting seems to be going mainstream as a way to address the physical, social, legal, and financial risks of climate change—not to mention its risks to public health. The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Investment Movement, an annual report by Arabella Advisors released in mid-December, noted that in the past year, the value of investment funds committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuel companies has doubled, to $5 trillion.

Nonprofits such as faith-based institutions and philanthropies continue to lead the way in this arena, the report found. But divestment is also spreading to new sectors, including large pension funds and even Fortune 500 companies. State and local governments and tens of thousands of individual investors have pledged to or begun the process. So far, though, the health care field represents the smallest proportion of divesting sectors, at only 2 percent.

Why Health Care Should Consider Divestment

Hospitals and health care organizations have a history of leading with their dollars, having committed to educating the public about the risks of tobacco in the 1990s. Some – the American Medical Association and Kaiser Permanente, among others – divested their tobacco holdings as well.

Health care’s environmental footprint is another major reason to consider divesting. HCWH has pointed out that the sector, with its advanced medical technology and 24/7 hospitals, is the U.S. economy’s second-most intensive consumer of energy.  Most of all, health care’s social mission to protect health compels it to act. The World Health Organization considers climate change the greatest public health threat of the 21st century. So, says HCWH, “it is particularly important to align investments to promote improved health outcomes.”

The World Medical Association agrees: This past fall, it officially called on its member associations to divest from fossil fuels and to invest in companies “that uphold principles consistent with U.N. [climate] policy.” 

Types of Divestment

Strictly speaking, full divestment would mean purging all coal, oil, and gas holdings from institutional or personal investments. That may sound dramatic, but, according to HCWH, “As part of a diversified portfolio, renewables and alternative energy may prove to be stronger long-term investment than coal and other fossil fuels.”

In part, that’s because fossil fuel companies are starting to look risky, according to Forbes, as carbon regulations, taxes, and the plummeting costs of renewables bring uncertainties. And if nations hew to the Paris Agreements to keep global warming below 2 degrees C (as advocated by the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, which is pushing to stop mining of the world's remaining fossil fuels), most existing oil and gas reserves may become “stranded assets.” In fact, organizations may soon consider it their fiduciary duty to carefully weigh any new investments in fossil fuels, Arabella Advisors reports.

Another divestment option is to remove the biggest carbon emitters from your portfolio. The Carbon Underground 200, which tracks the top 200 publicly traded companies with the largest reserves of coal, oil, and gas, can help with that.

You can also pull out of investments in a specific fossil fuel, such as coal, as SSM Health, a large Catholic hospital system in St. Louis, MO, did. (This is significant: As HCWH climate and health program director Eric Lerner put it, “Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the United States: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.”)

This step can be combined with redirecting investments into greener ones. San Francisco-based Dignity Health, one of the nation’s largest health systems, announced a year ago that it will both restrict investments in coal companies and expand investment opportunities that address climate change.

You can also simply “freeze” any further future fossil fuel investments, as Gundersen Health System of La Crosse, Wisconsin, did.

Of course, if you don’t have the authority, you can speak with your or your organization’s portfolio managers to ask them whether they are “climate proofing” investments and urge them to include environmental sustainability in their investment decisions.


  • The Carbon Disclosure Project offers assessments of different companies’ sustainability levels.
  • Fossil Free Funds can help you screen mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in your or your organization’s portfolio or retirement plan that include fossil fuel companies.
  • Fossil Free Indexes offers “carbon responsible” research and investing products and services geared to the transition to a low-carbon economy.
  • Fund Votes and CERES track how mutual funds and company shareholders vote on climate-related resolutions, respectively.


Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at miranda@ecoamerica.org.




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