The Consequences of Coal and the Case for Divestment

By Gary Cohen

There have been times in our history when we decided certain practices were no longer compatible with our values and sense of who we are as a people. 

Read the Consequences of Coal and the Case for Divestment, our new white paper that make the health, financial, and theological arguments for health care's divestment from coal.

We stopped the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons because we realized it was exposing people to dangerous levels of radiation. We divested from South Africa and removed the social license of the Apartheid regime because it was fundamentally unjust. 

Now we are reaching a societal consensus that coal is so destructive to our health and the environment that it is time to divest from it and plan for its phase out. This action is important in a broader health context because climate change is recognized as the most serious public health threat of our generation. 

As the one sector of our society whose mission is healing, the health sector needs to play a significant role in this divestment effort because: 

  • Coal is directly responsible for a wide range of serious health impacts and it is a leading driver of climate change. These impacts have been born by individuals and communities through increased suffering, disease, and health care costs. 
  • The financial market forces are working entirely against coal to the point where, financially, coal is simply the wrong choice for investors. 
  • Theologically, coal divestment offers a moral response to caring for the most vulnerable among us as well as to paving a pathway towards greater sustainability for future generations.

The health sector’s divestment from coal may be largely symbolic since hospitals and health plans do not have major holdings in coal companies. But this public and moral action is central to health care’s mission, and perhaps even more important as a demonstration of leadership from the health sector. 

When health care institutions divested from tobacco because it was contradictory to their healing mission, they also invested in aggressive public health campaigns to rid tobacco from their own facilities and implement smoking cessation programs for their employees, patients, and communities. 

In the same way, divesting from coal should parallel health care’s aggressive efforts to reduce its own climate footprint and strengthen alignment between its healing mission, values, and investment policies. 

Throughout its lifecycle, coal is an enemy of public health at a global scale. Investing in coal is not consistent with the mission of the health sector. Divestment is an achievable, meaningful, and timely demonstration of leadership and commitment to individual, community, and planetary health

Cover image by Flickr user CGP Grey.

Gary Cohen is the President and Founder of Health Care Without Harm.