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15 Nov 2018

BY ALEX FARRELL, PRESIDENT, AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL STUDENTS’ ASSOCIATION

In August, the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) put our money where our mouth is, and announced our intention to divest from fossil fuels. It was a significant moment, as Australian medical students joined the growing movement in the medical sector, including the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association and the Canadian Medical Associations. 

Climate change is the biggest global health threat of this century. That was the conclusion of the Lancet Climate Change Commission, and a message that must be taken up with urgency by the medical profession. The impacts on health are clear; the increase in severe weather including drought and heat-waves, worsening air pollution and worsening of infectious and respiratory diseases. 

Australian medical students have always been passionate about taking tangible steps to reduce their impact on the environment, and the AMSA project Code Green has previously run campaigns such as #MoveMindfully and worked to improve the sustainability of AMSA events.

However, this was our biggest step yet, driven by Code Green, and one I am exceptionally proud of our organisation for taking. For those who are unfamiliar, divesting from fossil fuels is moving investments to a bank or portfolio that doesn’t directly or indirectly fund the fossil fuel industry. It is an advocacy tool that redirects money away from problematic industries and towards ethical alternatives. It is also a statement – a public statement of where we stand as medical students on the fossil fuel industry and its impact on human health.

The announcement was made in an address to medical students from across the country at the 2018 AMSA Global Health Conference in Melbourne, and was supported unanimously by student representatives from all the Australian medical schools. It is a signal that young doctors are conscious consumers who will make decisions about their choices to shop and invest with social and environmental impacts in mind. 

As future doctors of Australia, we want to invest in a healthy future. We know that there is more to medicine than just curing illness once our patients are already sick. We need to take into account the upstream factors that are making them sick, and the way our society and our environment affects our health.

Australia’s healthcare system is responsible for more than seven per cent of the nation’s total carbon footprint. Earlier this year, AMSA held a forum with a sustainability expert Dr David Pencheon, who founded the Sustainable Development Unit in the UK's National Health Service. This unit successfully led the NHS to cut its carbon emissions by 11 per cent between 2007 and 2015. Whilst addressing the RACP Congress, Dr Pencheon said: “Doctors have nothing to lose, but the future.” As the ones who will see the impact of climate change play out in the lives and health of our patients, the current situation is no longer a status-quo we can accept. Many changes are necessary and possible, but for now, let’s keep it simple.

Divesting doesn’t require an overhaul of our health system. It doesn’t need a change in Government policy. It is simply a change of bank. Something that everyone, from the smallest student group, to the largest medical representative organisations and colleges, to clinics and hospitals, has the capacity to do. 

Internationally, medical associations are leading the way on divesting from fossil fuels. We have already seen doctors use divestment as a tool for public health in Australia, like the work of Dr Bronwyn King from 'Tobacco Free Portfolios'. 

It is time that we join together to focus that energy and drive on climate change, following the example of Doctors for the Environment. Together, the investments that the medical industry make have a large impact. Let’s use that impact to join other global leaders to stand together for health, and against fossil fuels.  


Published: 15 Nov 2018