Scientists Call on Health Philanthropies to Divest From Fossil Fuels

Senior scientists, including former chief advisors to the government of the UK and the European Commission, are calling on the two largest global health philanthropies to divest their investment portfolios of leading fossil fuel companies, the Guardian reports.

Scientists including Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to the European Commission; Lord Robert McCredie May, the former chief scientist for the UK; and Sir Bob Watson, former adviser to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are backing a campaign to encourage the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UK-based Wellcome Trust to offload their holdings in major coal, oil, and gas corporations on the grounds that their investments in such companies are undermining their efforts to improve global health. "One of the major impacts of climate change is on human health, especially in developing countries through vector borne disease and heat stress," said Watson. "This is where Wellcome and Gates have put a huge amount of money."

According to the Guardian's analysis of the Gates Foundation's 2013 tax filing, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Asset Trust had at least $1.4 billion in investments in thirty-five of the top two hundred fossil fuel companies, as ranked by the carbon stored in their declared reserves. "It is like giving with the one hand and taking with the other," said Glover. "These are leaders. These are people that others look to. So they have enormous responsibility."

Last week, the Guardian launched a campaign urging the two foundations to immediately freeze new investments in the top two hundred fossil fuel companies and to divest their endowments of all such investments within five years. As of Monday, more than a 138,000 people had signed an online petition urging the two philanthropies to take such action. In another sign that the divestment movement is gaining traction, Divest-Invest Philanthropy, a coalition of foundations and individuals committed to fossil fuel divestment and a clean energy future, last year secured commitments to divest from a hundred and eighty endowed institutions with more than $50 billion in assets.

"Bill is privately investing considerable time and resources in this effort and the breakthrough innovations needed and will continue to speak out about it," a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation told the Guardian. "We respect the passion of advocates for action on climate change, and recognize that there are many views on how best to address it."

Climate change and health, said a spokesperson for the Wellcome Trust, are "a highly complex issue which we take seriously in our decisions and on which we engage with policy makers, researchers, and the businesses in which we invest."

That position was echoed by others. "I think our cause would be far more effectively boosted if Bill Gates stood up and made eloquent speeches at [ExxonMobil's annual meeting] than by divestment," Sir Martin Rees, a British astrophysicist and former president of the Royal Society, told the Guardian. "The one thing that is clear, I think, is that large charities shouldn't hold big shareholdings in these companies and remain passive."

Ian Sample, Hannah Devlin. "Senior Scientists Call on Health Charities to Shift Money Out of Fossil Fuels." Guardian 03/20/2015. Damian Carrington, Karl Mathiesen. "Revealed: Gates Foundation's $1.4bn in Fossil Fuel Investments." Guardian 03/19/2015.