Divestment in Fossil Fuels: A Preventive Public Health Strategy

April 12, 2019
Robin Cooper, MD
Volume 36, Issue 4

The profound effects of climate change on mental health have become increasingly difficult to ignore. 

American Psychiatric Association Assembly Passes Action Plan on Divestment of Fossil Fuels

The profound effects of climate change have become increasingly more difficult to ignore or compartmentalize into the comfortable deep recesses of our minds. Whether it be the alarming reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 4th National Climate Assessment, the Lancet Countdown of 2018, or daily media reports showing the horrors of mega-storms, floods, wildfires, and droughts, the evidence everywhere indicates that climate change is happening at a pace and ferocity previously unanticipated.1-3

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has recognized the profound effects of climate change on mental health. In March 2017 the APA adopted a position paper on Climate Change and Mental Health, which is the official stance guiding the organization’s actions and activities.4 The position paper underscores APA’s commitment to action on climate change by stating, “climate change poses a threat to public health, including mental health” and recommends “support and collaboration with patients, communities and other health care organizations engaged in efforts to mitigate adverse health and mental health effects of climate change.”

Rapidly growing numbers of health professionals have expressed profound concern and are grappling with how to appropriately and effectively respond directly with our patients, with the general public, and in relation to policy advocacy. Several earlier articles in this series have outlined the direct and indirect clinical impacts of climate disruption on mental health and public health.

The Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA) is a group of dedicated psychiatrists whose mission is to inform the psychiatric profession and the public of the severe impacts of climate disruption on mental health and to advocate for actions to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. (www.climatepsychiatry.org).

Building on the APA’s commitment to “engage in efforts to mitigate adverse health impacts,” CPA developed a proposal for the APA to divest from fossil fuel companies. We were inspired in part by the successful passage of a divestment plan by the American Medical Association. With a commitment to align APA’s financial activities with our mental health professions’ stated values and principles, the CPA worked with APA assembly member, Dr James Fleming (also a CPA member) to introduce an Action Paper in Fall 2018 that advocates for APA divestment from companies with substantial assets in fossil fuels.5

Over 125 APA members signed on as supporters and several committees and caucuses endorsed the Action Paper (a remarkable level of membership engagement and support). The Action Paper passed with 61% majority, a result stunning for both the margin of victory and speed with which it moved through the Assembly’s usually slow process. The Action Paper has now been referred for review of the financial implications. Hopefully, this will lead to approval by the Board of Trustees, which would make divestment the official policy of the organization.

Why divestment?

There is no doubt that fossil fuels are driving catastrophic levels of climate change and they are the biggest contributors to global warming. Investments in fossil fuel companies contribute to making profitable the continuation of reliance on fossil fuels and are completely incompatible with the clear need to transition to a “clean economy,” an economy based on renewable sources of energy.

Divestment of investments in companies that operate using morally, ethically, and politically objectionable activities have historically been important and effective strategies to influence policies. Most notably, divestment was one tool for progressive change during the period of international efforts against apartheid in South Africa.

Divestment is now a tool in the efforts to mitigate climate change. Since climate change is such a profound threat to both general health and mental health, divestment can be viewed as a preventive public health strategy that addresses the root causes of health threats. Divestment operates at multiple levels.

1)Moral leverage: Establishing a moral foundation for financial operations, Nobel Laureate for Peace and prior UN Secretary General Desmond Tutu has said that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”6

2)Economic leverage: Although any individual groups’ holdings may not substantially affect share prices, the collective efforts of many groups can influence the vitality of the marketplace.

3)Political leverage: Growth in collective divestment has a political impact on efforts to move toward a clean economy. The precedent of physician support for divestment from tobacco companies was an effective preventive public health strategy in thwarting the tobacco industry and is a model for action now.

4)Psychiatric principle of facing the truth: Embedded in our professional being is the principle of facing and tolerating the truth. Just as with the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry has perpetrated public misinformation. sown seeds of doubt, and contributed to public confusion regarding the scientifically based evidence for the causes of climate change. The fossil fuel industry has used its enormous political and economic leverage to influence policies that sustain their profitability while undermining public interests.7-9 Combined with the unconscious processes of psychological denial, the fossil fuel industry promotes and contributes to denial and psychological retreat.

Divestment is a smart economic strategy

Not only is withdrawal of investments in fossil fuel companies the morally right thing to do, it is also a wise financial strategy. Christiana Figueres, formerly executive secretary of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change was an early advocate of divestment. She believes that investment decisions should reflect the latest scientific evidence for the dangers of climate change to both protect health and financial savings of ordinary citizens. She has said “The pensions, life insurances, and nest eggs of billions of ordinary people depend on the long-term security and stability of institutional investment funds,” and that “Climate change increasingly poses one of the biggest long-term threats to those investments and the wealth of the global economy.”10

Figueres’ warning is supported by a number of investment advisors who view long-term fossil fuel returns as “risky.” As clean energy becomes cheaper and regulatory and governmental policies support a transition to renewable sources of energy, fossil fuel investments are unlikely to be smart investments; certainly, these are not in the best long-term interests of investors. Thus, financial stewards of institutions have a fiduciary responsibility to divest.11

Divestment from fossil fuels is gaining traction. To name only a few, New York City pension funds and CalPers and the California Teachers’ retirement plans (one of the largest public entity retirement plans in the US) have declared that investing in fossil fuel companies is incompatible with their public mission.12,13 Medical institutions and professional health organizations are joining the lead of the Canadian Medical Association, American Medical Association, British Medical Association, Royal College of General Physicians and numerous other medical organizations by adopting divestment plans.14

The recent adoption of the APA Action Paper puts our organization in good company. This is just the first step in the APA process of adopting divestment as the organization’s guiding investment policy. The next step will be the approval by the APA Board of Trustees to divest from the fossil fuel industry. If approved, it will be a model for physicians and other health care professionals to align their financial practices with the mission to promote individual and public health and will be a small but important step on the path toward preventing, mitigating and reversing the most serious health crisis of our time.

Acknowledgement- I am grateful to the members of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance Steering Committee: Drs James Fleming, Elizabeth Haase, Janet Lewis, and David Pollack; Dr Todd Sack, lead author of of the American Medical Association divestment plan; and Thomas Van Dyck, sustainability investment advisor at RBC Wealth Management for their advice on this topic.


Dr Cooper is Steering Committee Member, Climate Psychiatry Alliance; Assistant Professor Clinical Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, CA.

Dr Cooper reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). https://archive.ipcc.ch/. Accessed March 8, 2019.

2. Fourth National Climate Assessment. https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/. Accessed March 8, 2019.

3. Lancet Countdown 2018 Report. http://www.lancetcountdown.org/media/1418/2018-lancet-countdown-policy-brief. Accessed March 8, 2018.

4. American Psychiatric Association. Climate Change and Mental Health Connections. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/climate-change-and-mental-health-connections. Accessed March 8, 2019.

5. American Psychiatric Association. Protecting Public Mental Health From the Adverse Effects of Climate Change by Ending APA Investments in Fossil Fuel Companies (Divestment). Action Paper #2018A2 12.1. http://www.area3apa.net/uploads/1/8/4/8/18487482/actions_papers-_nov_2018.pdf. Accessed March 8, 2019.

6. Desmond Tutu Calls for Anti-Apartheid Style Boycott of Fossil Fuel Industry. The Guardian. April 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/10/desmond-tutu-anti-apartheid-style-boycott-fossil-fuel-industry. Accessed March 8, 2019.

7. Union of Concerned Scientists. The Disinformation Playbook. Cambridge, MA: Center for Science and Democracy. https://www.ucsusa.org/center-science-and-democracy/disinformation-playbook. Accessed March 8, 2019.

8. Hall S. Exxon Knew About Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago. Scientific American. October 20, 2015. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/. Accessed March 8, 2019.

9. Influence Map. How Much Big Oil Spends on Obstructive Climate Lobbying. April 2016. https://influencemap.org/site/data/000/287/Lobby_Spend_Report_March_2016.pdf. Accessed March 8, 2019.

10. Volcovici V. UN Climate Chief Urges Investors to Bolster Global Warming Fight. Reuters. January 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-climate-change/un-climate-chief-urges-investors-to-bolster-global-warming-fight-idUSBREA0E1KM20140115. Accessed March 8, 2019.

11. Divest Invest. Divest From the Past, Invest in the Future. https://www.divestinvest.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Divest-Invest_February-2018-more-compressed.pdf. Accessed March 8, 2019.

12. New York City Plans to Divest $5bn From Fossil Fuels and Sue Oil Companies. January 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/10/new-york-city-plans-to-divest-5bn-from-fossil-fuels-and-sue-oil-companies. Accessed March 8, 2019.

13. California Legislative Information. SB-964 Public Employees’ Retirement Fund and Teachers’ Retirement Fund: Investments: Climate-Related Financial Risk. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB964. Accessed March 8, 2019.

14. Fossil Free: Divestment. 1000+ Divestment Commitments. https://gofossilfree.org/divestment/commitments/. Accessed March 8, 2019.

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