Fossil Fuel Divestment Protects Health, Saves Lives

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Fossil Fuel Divestment Protects Health, Saves Lives

For those of us who live in California, all we need to do is look out the window to see that climate change is here and now

Even as both sides continue to push and pull, the choice is a simple one. (Photo: Fossil Free California/Facebook)

Passage of SB 185, requiring the California Public Employees' Retirement System and the California State Teachers' Retirement System to divest from coal companies, is great news not only for us Californians but for the planet. The legislation will quite literally allow us to breathe a little easier.

That’s because coal-fired power plants are among the most polluting industrial facilities on the planet. 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.

According to a 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force, air pollution from these plants account for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays annually – costing Americans more than $100 billion each year.

Earlier in the year, a survey of major medical associations assessed climate change’s impact on patients and patient care. A majority of physician respondents are already observing health impacts of climate change among their patients. Examples include an increase in chronic disease severity from air pollution, allergic symptoms from exposure to plants or mold, and severe weather injuries. The study is significant because it represents the first time that physicians have documented seeing evidence of climate change in their patients.

But for those of us who live in California, we don’t need a study to document climate change. All we need to do is look out the window or flip on the news to see evidence of the most severe drought of our lifetime, as reservoirs and fresh water sources run dangerously low and fires rage across the state, forcing thousands to flee their homes and communities. Adding insult to injury, forecasters are predicting one of the most intense El Niños of all time, suggesting a winter of destructive flooding and mud slides. It’s as if the “Climate Change Playbook” is playing out right in front of our eyes.

Which is why SB 185 is so important.

While coal divestment is a great first step, it’s just a first step. Scientists have made it clear that to avoid climate catastrophe, 80% of all fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Which means that to demonstrate even stronger climate leadership, California should expand its divestment efforts to include oil and gas companies.

During the height of the tobacco control movement, 14 public funds divested or froze tobacco investments, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. As other states consider divesting from coal and fossil fuels, the tobacco divestment movement is a great example of how the overall impact of divestment was increased because multiple states took similar actions.

Critics of the divestment argue that leveraging fossil fuel companies to address climate change is too narrow a strategy to effectively offset the damage fossil fuel emissions are causing to the planet. There is merit to this critique, which is why the divestment movement is also supporting policies to cut subsidies for fossil fuel exploration, extraction and production and pushing for policies that support renewable energy and energy efficiency.

As we know, the challenges of addressing climate change are many, but the divestment movement is making incredible strides and may be our best hope for protecting communities across the world from the destructive forces of climate change.

The divestment movement is proving that the grassroots can inspire amazing change. It’s providing students, health professionals, faith leaders, rank and file union members, and ordinary folk who might otherwise feel powerless against the might of climate change, with a meaningful way to make a difference.

It’s exposing the damage that the fossil fuel sector is causing to the planet and is holding elected leaders and corporate leaders accountable so they can be part of the solution. It’s energizing the larger climate movement and bringing urgency and focus to what is the most important issue of our lifetime.

Eric Lerner

Eric Lerner is the director of Climate and Health at Healthcare Without Harm, the first health organization to fully divest from fossil fuels.

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