First things first, I’m a fan of the Wellcome Trust. It’s the second largest non-governmental funder of medical research on the planet and it has helped achieve some incredible things. To name a few: it co-founded the Human Genome Project; it was at the forefront of the fight against Ebola; it was instrumental in early treatments of leukaemia; it is a champion of open access to academic knowledge and it’s funding research to tackle drug resistant infections before they become the next health crisis. But we have to ask ourselves…so what?
What use is all the good that The Wellcome Trust does when it has around £450m invested in fossil fuel companies and wants to keep it there? The Trust recently rejected the Guardian’s call to divest from fossil fuels, despite the more than 144,000 people signing the petition calling for them to do so. The Wellcome Trust’s director Jeremy Farrar has offered the following words explaining his actions:
“Carbon emissions are driven by both supply and demand: it makes no sense to devote attention purely to one side of this equation.
This maximises our influence as investors. We understand the attraction of the grand gesture for which the Guardian is calling, but such a gesture can be made only 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. Were we to sell our holdings, it is unlikely that the buyers would exert the same influence. But when we are not satisfied that a company is engaging with our concerns, we are perfectly prepared to sell.
This strategy recognises the unavoidable fact that fossil fuels are essential to the economy, life and health, and will remain so for decades under any conceivable scenario. This is especially true in low and middle income countries, where growth is the best guarantor of better health. What is critical is to move away from the most carbon-intense fossil fuels towards those with lighter carbon footprints, and towards renewables and nuclear energy. Some fossil fuel companies – though by no means all of them – are playing important roles in this transition, for example by investing heavily in natural gas and carbon capture and storage. Some also champion carbon pricing, and already use carbon prices internally in assessing investment projects“
By refusing to divest, the Wellcome Trust is condoning the practices of fossil fuel companies and most shockingly undermining its central mission, “to improve health by supporting bright minds in science, the humanities and social sciences, and public engagement.” Simply put, climate change will negatively affect the health of millions of people and health professionals should take notice. The Wellcome Trust is a medical research charity which funds research to improve human health but is investing in companies whose principal activities undermine human health in the most fundamental ways possible – by making the planet we live on drier, deadlier and more disease-ridden.
When 80% of known fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, the fossil fuel industry’s response has been to lobby harder, dig deeper and pretend this doesn’t affect them. Wellcome’s disappointing reply, that they will divest from companies individually if they ‘don’t meet their environmental standards’ begs the question – what can their environmental standards possibly be!?
Mr Farrar speaks of shareholder engagement as the more prudent path forward but what evidence can he offer to reassure us? The Rockefellers tried for ten years to convince ExxonMmobile to change their ways, stop funding climate deniers and take the issue seriously and they failed. The leadership of Exxon wouldn’t budge. In the end, the first family of oil wealth has divested from fossil fuel companies. The process Mr. Farrar describes above is nebulous, time-consuming and almost proven to fail. Even when a fossil fuel company agrees to change its behaviour, what mechanism is there to actually force them to do so? Months after Shell backs a shareholder resolution to address the impacts of climate change, it restarts its foolhardy and reckless endeavor to carve up the Arctic searching for oil. The track record for shareholder resolutions is too flimsy to trust with the fate of the world.
Climate change is the human rights challenge of our time. If our charitable trusts, our educational, faith and public institutions aren’t prepared to put their foot down, to stand on the side of people and planet – what chance do we have?
Well, we’re not sitting this one out. We’re taking matters into our own hands.
On 18th April, Divest London will hold a giant oil-slick flashmob outside The Wellcome Trust – and WE NEED YOU THERE!!!
If you are interested, please join the event! Come dressed in black from head to toe. Bring a small sign explaining why you are ‘dying’ for divestment. At 12 o’clock sharp listen for the whistle.
The only planet we have is burning. Asking our leading institutions for ‘grand gestures’ – and real leadership – doesn’t seem unreasonable. It’s the only reasonable thing to do.
Let’s remind the Wellcome Trust leadership where its priorities lie.
See you on the 18th.
Gabriel Davalos (Divest London)
PS – in the meantime, feel free to send an encouraging tweet to The Wellcome Trust!