The disinvestment campaign is based on bad evidence and will harm world health
Turning the fight against climate change into a moral crusade against a demonized energy industry will not lead to good decisions about how to tackle climate change nor will it help improve world health. It is likely to have the opposite effect for both areas as it undermines the idea that problems are best solved by careful evidence based analysis.
The leaders of this campaign clearly want to make the energy industry a demon to rank alongside slave traders and the tobacco industry (David McCoy says in his blog we shouldn’t make inappropriate parallels with slavery one paragraph after making exactly that comparison). But making the energy industry a demon and pretending that punishing them will help is likely to have the effect of absolving people from the personal actions they need to make to reduce energy use. Disinvestment is a cost-free gesture that requires no personal sacrifice but makes people feel good that they have done their bit.
The campaign will cause deeper damage because of its careless attitude to evidence an attitude that has infiltrated the medical profession’s response to climate change. Three examples from McCoy’s arguments and two from previous campaigning editorials in the BMJ are worth looking at.
Both the editorial (http://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h3196) and McCoy’s blog (http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2015/07/30/david-mccoy-divestment-is-no-grand-g...) are based on the claim that government subsidies to the energy industry amount to trillions every year. The blog claims: “The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that public subsidisation of fossil fuels amounts to about $5.3trn (6.5% of global GDP) in 2015.” The problem is that the home page for that reference clearly states: “This Working Paper should not be reported as representing the views of the IMF”. I might equivalently quote the views of a BMJ rapid response as the views of the BMJ. And anyone who reads the heavily criticised paper will realise that the definition of subsidy is an absurd stretch and a gargantuan exaggeration. It is roughly the equivalent of claiming that the UK government subsidises the rich because income tax is only levied on their income at 50% instead of 95%. Energy subsidies are bad (as are subsidies to biofuels in the name of environmentalism) but outrageous claims about them will not influence real policy.
McCoy also argues that the oil industry spends a fortune to undermine climate science despite the admissions by all major firms that warming is happening. Again his sources are not reliable and often don’t mean what he claims. He equates all lobbying activity by the industry as campaigning against climate action. But these are huge firms who need to talk to government a lot just to operate and it is absurd to equate all this spending as having anything to do with climate denial.
McCoy also reveals a certain political viewpoint and a casual attitude to the facts in this statement: “If we are really concerned for the billions of people who live in poverty, we would do better to dismantle the prevailing neoliberal form of globalisation that has perpetuated poverty, widened inequality and institutionalised an array of market and regulatory failures that deepen inequity and inhibit poverty alleviation and allow ecological degradation to continue to go unchecked.” While I have no problem with him holding whatever views of the nature of capitalism he wants, he is not entitled to his own facts. In reality, for example, world poverty is falling fast. The percentage of the world’s population in absolute poverty has halved in the last 15 years alone, world inequality is substantially down. Even ecological degradation is not “unchecked”: for example, the Sahel region has become substantially greener since 1980. (My facts can be checked from trustworthy sources such as ourworldindata (http://ourworldindata.org) and GapMinder (http://www.gapminder.org)).
Previous BMJ editorials and analyses on the health effects of also show a casual attitude to evidence that will curse any rational considerations of the best approaches to improving world health. There is little evidence that warming will spread malaria, for example. But associating it with the fight against warming distracts from the simple public health actions that are needed to eliminate it. Wood burning stoves kill millions every year but not because of their association with warming but from indoor air pollution. Wider access to fossil fuels might save millions by eliminating that curse but this won’t happen if we are engaged in a moral campaign against the industry.
Yes, we should be doing something about climate change. And we should strive to improve world health. But we won’t do the right things if we treat this as a moral campaign that befuddles our ability think clearly about the evidence. We have to carefully and rationally weigh up the costs and benefits of particular actions not rush to shift the blame onto evil energy firms. If we care about 3rd world health we might actually reduce carbon emissions and improve health by wider use of fossil fuels in some places. In the long term we need to develop lower carbon alternatives, but we will achieve that by carefully considered investments now, not by pretending that the solutions already exist.
The medical profession is doing itself a great disservice by signing up to a simplistic campaign that it doesn’t understand and one that treats evidence as casually as a climate denier. The Wellcome Trust and others should ignore the disinvestment petition and the profession as a whole should demand a much better standard of evidence before it jumps on a bandwagon. Feeling good about the environment is not the same as doing good for the environment or world health.
Competing interests: No competing interests