Canadian Medical Association Favors Fossil Fuel Divestment

In a move that many delegates admitted was largely symbolic, Canada's largest medical association last month voted to divest funds from fossil fuel companies to highlight public health concerns about climate change. The action evokes strategies used in the 1980s during another public health crisis: the war on tobacco.

In its latest political statement, the Canadian medical community put its money where its mouth is—or, more accurately in this case, took its money away.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) voted late last month to divest its holdings in all companies whose business is linked to fossil fuels. The goal? To make a political statement about the health effects of climate change.

“When the health effects of tobacco became known, the CMA quickly changed its investments. In times of climate change, health organizations around the world are divesting in fossil fuels,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, the association delegate who presented the plan, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

CMA isn’t the first to this relatively new battle. The British Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians have already withdrawn their financial stake from fossil fuel businesses, CMAJ noted.

The proposal met with opposition, with some CMA delegates saying the issues related to divestment had not been thoroughly debated. Ultimately, the plan passed the association’s general council, with 56 percent of delegates supporting the change.

While the decision will have only a limited financial impact—CMA has just $1.8 million of its $29 million reserve fund devoted to fossil fuel investments—members see the vote as symbolic.

“This is a show of leadership, a political step; it’s not a financial step,” Dr. John Haggie told The Globe and Mail. “We either believe in this principle or we don’t.”

The Tobacco Comparison

Howard’s comparison of fossil fuels to tobacco underlines a key strategy that many medical groups have used in the past on political issues that affect public health.

In the 1980s, as the anti-tobacco movement was moving into full swing, many organizations in both the medical and academic worlds chose to divest, including the American Medical Association [PDF], which felt pressure from advocacy groups such as Doctors Ought to Care. In 1986, AMA pushed medical schools around the country to do the same.

Over time the plan worked, and at the beginning of the 1990s, schools such as Harvard University divested themselves of tobacco stocks.

These tactics have informed the approach of climate change advocacy groups such as Its cofounder, Bill McKibben, cited the AMA’s role in Harvard’s tobacco divestment in arguing that the university should also shed its investments in fossil fuel companies.

Will AMA Follow Suit?

Thus far, AMA has not formally supported a similar divestment plan in the case of fossil fuels, though it has made policy statements on the issue in the past that encourage the medical community to take a prominent role in setting public policy on climate change.

In its official policy on the issue, AMA emphasizes that it “supports educating the medical community on the potential adverse public health effects of global climate change and incorporating the health implications of climate change into the spectrum of medical education, including topics such as population displacement, heat waves and drought, flooding, infectious and vector-borne diseases, and potable water supplies.”

And last fall, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study advising doctors on the potential effects of climate change on patients’ health.

“Health is inextricably linked to climate change,” the study states. “It is important for clinicians to understand this relationship in order to discuss associated health risks with their patients and to inform public policy.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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