The same argument is being made today for fossil fuels. Strong bodies of evidence, including the latest National Climate Assessment, show the extraction and burning of fossil fuels have led to extreme shifts in temperature and weather patterns, which has exacerbated public health problems such as heat stress, vector-borne diseases and water shortages. Pollution from fossil fuels has led to higher incidence of chronic health conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In May, Stanford University said it will divest all endowment funds from coal companies. But the school's affiliated healthcare providers—Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital—are legal corporations separate from Stanford. Hospital officials there didn't respond to requests for comment on whether the university's policy will apply to them.
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, advocates have urged the school, its foundation and its affiliated healthcare system to adopt a divestment policy already approved by Dane County, where the university is located. UW Health, an entity that is independent from UW-Madison, declined to comment. But David Walsh, board chair of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, said the hospital is “open and transparent” to all suggestions, but fossil-fuel divestment hasn't become a priority for the organization yet.
Dr. Bruce Barrett, a family physician in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, said divestment would be a morally and financially sound strategy for the university, foundation and health system. “I would be surprised if (divestment) doesn't become a big deal because of the huge cobenefits in terms of human health,” he said.
Many hospitals already are leaders in reducing their carbon footprint by making their facilities greener. Systems including Renton, Wash.-based Providence Health & Services, Kaiser Permanente and Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis., have emphasized renewable energy and energy efficiency in their strategic planning. Many within the industry believe that goes in tandem with the divestment movement.
“If hospitals become leaders in renewable energy, that will create great momentum,” said Health Care Without Harm's Cohen. “They are a huge part of the economy, and they can drive the transition toward a low-carbon future.”
That future has begun to weigh more on the minds of faith-based shareholders, said Susana McDermott, a spokeswoman for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. ICCR members—including Ascension Health, based in St. Louis; Advocate Health Care, based in Downers Grove, Ill.; and Catholic Health Initiatives, based in Englewood, Colo., among several others—evaluate a variety of investment strategies.