Dr Tatiana Hitchen draws the connections between our environment and our health -
and how we can take action to protect both.
Healthcare workers vicariously experience many facets of human life, with social, economic and cultural factors influencing the health or ill-health of patients. The environment, too, influences and interacts with our bodies and well-being. There are the positives of outdoor activity for exercise, vitamin D, and the feeling of biophilia (that affinity we feel for nature). There are also numerous negatives, as practices that damage the environment also adversely affect our health - think of coal mining and the occupational lung disease pneumoconiosis, the profound air pollution affecting many large cities and driving respiratory illnesses, the way climate change is altering ecosystems and fostering the spread of disease, or the numerous hospitalisations that come with “extreme heat” days.
There are many within the health care profession who lament the effects of climate change and fossil fuel use, and want to engage in meaningful action to hasten a transition to a low, if not zero, carbon world.
Healthy Futures is a network of health professionals, students, and supporters who have thought about the practicalities and want to aid a rational progression to sustainability. Coal mining, coal-powered energy, unconventional gas - these industries rely on investment and financial support. For instance, anyone can voice their dissent by switching their banking to an institution which does not invest in fossil fuels.
Our Money, Our Health
Healthcare workers also have another divestment target - they are invariably signed up to one of two major superannuation funds, HESTA and First State Super, and it is these funds that Healthy Futures is focusing on.
The rationale is this: superannuation funds operate to invest members’ dollars to generate financial gains over time. Health care workers may not feel comfortable that their retirement money is supporting the very industries that undermine their day-to-day work: a parallel would be investing in tobacco (which both HESTA and First State Super have divested from). Ergo, members and supporters of Healthy Futures are campaigning for super funds to divest from fossil fuels not only for the sake of the planet, but also to better reflect their members’ commitment to combating disease and promoting health.
Health professionals also have direct financial interests in their super funds divesting from fossil fuels. The profitability of fossil fuel companies is falling sharply as the world transitions to cleaner forms of energy. A recent report by Market Forces, “BURNED”, estimates that HESTA and First State Super lost $485 and $685 million respectively on their holdings in fossil fuel companies in the last financial year - amounting to a loss of $735 for every HESTA member and $1,174 for every First State Super member.
Funds might not be aware that their members strongly support divestment. To that end, in August 2015, Healthy Futures began its first major campaign, directed at HESTA, the largest super fund for the health and community services industry. Following a significant education and awareness programme at Western Health, Melbourne, over 500 people have signed an online petition for HESTA to divest from fossil fuel investments. Crucially, more than 160 of those are HESTA members. Employees at other healthcare organisations are also expected to join Western Health as the campaign programme expands. Healthy Futures sees great potential for HESTA to expand its socially conscious position - demonstrated by its divestment from tobacco and from immigration detention centre management company Transfield (now known as Broadspectrum) - to concern for the environment, and to demonstrate this through definitive action.
Healthy Futures further proposes that HESTA disclose all of its investments which support fossil fuels. This would allow members to make informed choices about how their money is invested, as well as opening an avenue for discussion about specific alternatives. Healthy Futures recently requested this but HESTA refused to disclose its fossil fuel company holdings, citing “commercial confidentiality”.
Healthy Futures has also launched an online petition for First State Super to divest from fossil fuels, building on the interest expressed by First State Super members who signed the HESTA petition (56 so far). First State Super has have a socially responsible investment option and has committed to screen out from this option companies that derive more than 20 percent of their revenue from the sale of coal, oil and natural gas. However, that leaves the majority of their members invested in harmful and financially precarious fossil fuel assets. Healthy Futures are therefore requesting that First State Super extend the negative fossil fuel screens that are intended for their socially responsible investment option to also apply to their default investment option.
Making Votes Meaningful
2016 will also be a busy year for Healthy Futures as the next federal election is due. Healthy Futures is keen to provide people in the healthcare sector with ways to encourage and support the political parties to proffer more ambitious policies on climate change. Many electorates are expected to be hotly contested, and climate change is sure to be on the agenda for a lot of voters, particularly post-Paris. We will work with other non-government organisations in assisting political parties to achieve better climate policies.
We have a number of other ideas and plans for engagement, advocacy and education, but we can’t do this alone. Healthy Futures is an inclusive, dynamic organisation. We are keen to form partnerships with other networks of health care professionals, be they nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, medical scientists, or any groups that are concerned about what climate change does to our health and how we might evolve to safer, greener practices.
If you work in health care or community services and support a low-carbon future for our health, we’d love to hear from you. And, particularly, if you are a member of HESTA or First State Super, please visit our website to sign our petitions and learn more about having a say in how your retirement investments are directed.
If you are a great social networker who can help us foster friendships and partnerships, Healthy Futures would be very keen for you to join our communications team. If you have any other skills to offer, or even just want to support us through joining as a member, there are multiple ways you can be involved.
In summary, please sign on to our divestment campaign, help take our message further by being part of our communications team, and let us know if you’re interested in encouraging political parties to offer better policies on climate change. Find out more about who we are and what you can do at http://www.healthyfutures.net.au
Dr Hitchen is a member of Healthy Futures based in Melbourne
Originally published in Friends of the Earth Australia's Chain Reaction newsletter, April 2016