Intended for healthcare professionals


Professionals must refuse to work on new fossil fuel projects

BMJ 2023; 382 doi: (Published 01 September 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;382:p2008
  1. Andrew Watterson, public health researcher, University of Stirling, Scotland

Professionals working for or with fossil fuel industries on new developments can no longer justify their ethical position given the known climate and public health damage caused, writes Andrew Watterson

As the climate crisis intensifies, professionals involved with the oil and gas industry must adopt an ethical position to mitigate further death and destruction. New fossil fuel developments in oil, gas, and coal extraction cannot be justified, scientifically or ethically, given the crisis that threatens our existence. Tackling climate change upstream is vital to protect public health, but as of mid 2022, almost 50 new UK developments are thought to be in the pipeline.1 Preventive actions are needed by professionals working in and consulting for the industry—lawyers, insurers, environmental impact assessors, environmental scientists, engineers, chemists, geologists, planners, economists, and bankers.

Many industry professionals still support new fossil fuel developments, and remain curiously absent from public discussions about their responsibility for global warming and environmental damage. Professionals must take greater accountability, prioritise work in the best interests of society and the environment, and ensure more rapid and detailed just transition plans urgently needed for the oil and gas industry workforce.2 Without finance, insurance, geological analysis, legal approvals, engineering assessments, planning permission, and environmental health impacts, new oil and gas developments cannot proceed.

Some engineers have argued their profession should have “a declaration of climate action” linked to a code of ethics, with strict standards and sanctions for non-compliance, but this approach remains the exception in the oil and gas industry rather than the rule.3 Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for urgent, short term climate actions and governance and policy changes to stop new fossil fuel projects.4 More ethically focused debate should be encouraged because research shows that a lack of moral and ethical guidance for the industry has hindered policy, governance, and professional engagement with sustainable approaches to the climate crisis, and climate change concerns continue to be ignored or downplayed.567

The bioethical case for preventing further climate change is detailed in numerous reports from the World Health Organization, UN Human Rights, and UN Environment Programme.8 The impact of continued carbon production on global health is clear in terms of human morbidity and mortality. These impacts are left to the health profession to tackle downstream. Environmental damage is reported daily, with the poorest and most vulnerable populations hit hardest by climate change, facing greater exposure to diseases and heat stress.9

Recently a group of lawyers pledged to no longer act for or accept litigation cases on behalf of the fossil fuel industry in defiance of their professional body rules.10 Other professionals fear reprisals if they refuse to work on new or expanded oil and gas projects. They may argue mistakenly that their input into new projects will mitigate the most damaging future climate effects of developments, but evidence shows it will not.49 Some argue they simply obey orders, accept that developments are currently legal, and display “wilful ignorance” of the known climate damage. Strong ethical codes overseen by an independent regulatory body could influence, guide, and possibly protect professionals if they declined new industry development work. This is a challenging decision that could affect their current employment and future careers.

Those ethical codes that do exist for some professions often tend to include similar recommendations and provide little or no practical advice about what members should do when faced with new fossil fuel development proposals.11121314 They infrequently mention public health impacts. Most neglect to explore climate change issues in any detail. Codes generally “advise” or “recommend” actions by members and are therefore too weak and ambiguous to be effective. They rarely require members to act sustainably, protect the public, the environment, and future generations, and most do not discuss preventing harm. None appear to monitor and regulate sustainability or unethical environmental behaviour proactively. The International Association for Impact Assessment Code refers to “a just and sustainable world for people and the environment” and “a duty of care to both present and future generations.”15 These phrases are useless if some professionals continue to facilitate, directly and indirectly, and legitimise new industry developments.

Effective codes of professional ethics on climate change that provide a common set of standards for best practice would therefore help to safeguard professionals, their employers, and clients. Codes should detail what “maximising the public good” means and focus on stopping rather than mitigating climate change impacts. There must be no further support for climate damaging projects. In 2015, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers approved a code of ethics requiring, at least on paper, that “members shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties.”16 UK professional codes should follow this lead, along with vital reviewing, monitoring, and auditing of the codes.

The principles of “doing no harm” and supporting justice are well established in medicine. Medical codes of ethics and regulatory bodies, despite their limitations, could also provide a useful template for professional bodies associated with the fossil fuel industry. With debates now suggesting that deliberate economic and political policies that are destroying our climate constitute “social murder” and that ecocide causes “social death,” ethical changes could help protect lives and societies that are at risk because of the climate crisis.1718 New or strengthened codes would provide an upstream approach to prevent further damage to public health from fossil fuels, and would send a powerful message to politicians, industry, and the public about confronting climate change threats.


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare I have none.

  • Provenance and peer review: commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.