Laureates, including former Wellcome Trust employee Sir John Sulston, argue that investments by charities conflict with their aims of improving public health
|The WHO has warned that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will kill a quarter of a million people a year. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP|
Nobel prize winners in the US and Australia have joined calls for the world’s two largest health charities to sell their stocks in leading fossil fuel companies.
The eminent medical researchers argue that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust should end their investments in major coal, oil and gas firms because they conflict with the charities’ aims of improving public health.
“It is clear that while some coal producers may be in denial, the large oil companies understand exactly what is happening with anthropogenic climate change. It is also clear that the rush to find more oil and dig more coal continues unabated,” said Professor Peter Doherty, a scientist at the University of Melbourne who won the Nobel prize for his work on the immune system.
“Is it likely that anything other than placing a real price on carbon and withdrawing investment will influence either industry?” he said.
Last month, the Guardian launched a campaign to encourage the two charities to divest from fossil fuel companies with the largest reserves on the grounds that they undermine the charities’ aims.
Proven fossil fuel reserves are already three to five times larger than the amount of carbon that can be burned by mid-century with a realistic chance of keeping the global temperature rise below 2C, a widely agreed threshold for dangerous climate change impacts.
The World Health Organisation has warned that climate change will kill a quarter of a million people a year between 2030 and 2050, mostly through more cases of malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, heat exposure and inadequate nutrition.
Professor Anne Glover, who was chief scientific adviser to the European commission until last year, and Lord May, the UK government’s former chief scientist, have backed the Guardian campaign, along with over 175,000 others.
“These are leaders. These are people that others look to. So they have enormous responsibility. That’s why for me it is important that they react to this,” Prof Glover said.
But the Wellcome Trust has dismissed divestment as a “grand gesture”, and argues that as an investor it wields more influence over the sustainable policies adopted by fossil fuel companies. It said it was not able to divulge details of the conversations it had with the industry.
Writing in the Guardian in March, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, argued that divestment was a gesture that could only be made once. “By maintaining our positions, we meet boards again and again, supporting their best environmental initiatives and challenging their worst. We would not be able to have the frank discussions we require if we published details, but we are confident that our engagement has impact.”
Several Nobel laureates, including one of the Wellcome Trust’s most senior former employees, called for proof that holding stocks in fossil fuel companies was an effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions.
Sir John Sulston, a Nobel laureate and founding director of the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Centre in Cambridge, called on the Trust to prove that its discussions with fossil fuel companies had had an impact.
Writing in the Guardian , Sulston praised the Trust but urged them to release examples of the progress they have made. “Can the Trust show us the evidence that its negotiations as a stockholder of Shell, BP and the other fossil fuel companies are the best route towards the rapid reduction of carbon emissions? If so, we shall be delighted and relieved to learn that doubts are misplaced and that there is a well signposted way forward.
“Otherwise, we must conclude that the Wellcome Trust is not part of the solution to the problem. In this matter the earth and its inhabitants cannot wait for polite business exchanges,” he says.
“The Trust’s statements seem to underrate its influence in the business and political landscape, and the effect that reinvestment will have on reducing the costs of renewable energy. Divestment, far from being simply a grand gesture, can be a switch onto a high speed track,” he adds.
Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel prize winner at New England Biolabs in Massachusetts, echoed the call for evidence: “The idea that you can have insider talks and achieve some action, I don’t think that works. It’s an excuse to keep investing in something that’s profitable for the foundation, but there are many other investments that would be equally profitable.”
“If they have done something behind the scenes, let them give us an example. If they can’t, they should divest,” he added.
For others though, the call for divestment seemed impractical. “Global climate change is certainly a very serious issue. But while it would be nice for the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to divest their investments, I do not feel that we hold ourselves to the same standard,” said Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate and director of Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute in Maryland.
“At age 66 I no longer ride my bicycle to work. I accept business class air tickets for intercontinental travel to give lectures abroad. We heat our house in winter and use an air conditioner in summer. And like everyone, our house is filled with items made in China – a nation with a huge environmental problem. Unfortunately my generation is running out the clock and our children and grandchildren will inherit a mess,” he said.
Professor Doherty said that the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation were both hugely impressive organisations, but through divestment could have an important impact on efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“Those who, like me, work in biomedical research, have the greatest respect the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, but wonder if anything other than the bluntest of signals will influence the political dynamic that is needed for real change,” he said.
The global divestment movement, which encourages investors to sell their stocks in fossil fuel companies, is growing rapidly with over 200 organisations worth over £33bn signed up.
Jonah Goldman, a spokeman for Bill Gates, said: “Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in their recent annual letter that “the long term threat [of climate change] is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively - right now - to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide. Bill is privately investing considerable time and resources in this effort and the breakthrough innovations needed and will continue to speak out about it. We respect the passion of advocates for action on climate change, and recognize that there are many views on how best to address it.”
A Wellcome Trust spokesperson said: “We use our access to boards to encourage companies that produce or consume fossil fuels to adopt more transparent and sustainable policies that support transition towards a low-carbon economy. We would not be able to have the frank discussions we require if we published details.”